A proactive Chinese emperor develops his own secret service protection unit in the form of street orphans trained to be elite martial artists. The Jinyiwei are the best of the best which makes their team leader, Qinglong (Donnie Yen), the best of the best of the best. Which is pretty damn good. As leader of the guard, his weapons of choice are the fourteen titular blades he wears on his back. Why fourteen? Glad you asked… eight of them are to be used for interrogation and persuasion, while the remaining six are reserved for killing.
The team answers to no one but the emperor himself until an evil eunuch (can you blame the guy?) secretly takes control of the court. Qinglong soon stands as the only member of the Jinyiwei remaining loyal to the emperor, and in an effort to restore him to power Qinglong will have to fight his way through the evil eunuch (seriously, can you blame him?), an outside prince (Sammo Hung) hoping to take the throne and the most feared fighters in the kingdom… the other members of the Jinyiwei.
Saying 14 Blades isn’t the best of Donnie Yen’s recent films is like saying ‘missionary’ isn’t your favorite sex position. It’s still sex. And this is still a new Donnie Yen film. And the man does not disappoint. His role here calls for more swordplay and acrobatics than pure hand-to-hand martial arts, but he excels at it all.
Yen faces off against several foes, but his best fights are two face-offs with a female assassin named Tuo Tuo (Kate Tsui). The action is lightning quick, and they’re a joy to watch even if they do benefit from wire work. But those aren’t the only enjoyable scraps as larger-scale fight scenes co-exist alongside a few other notable one-on-ones. There’s even an amusing but brief fight that sees Yen taking on some sword-wielding bad guys with nothing but open-palmed slaps and bits of chicken.
As good as the action is it’s still marred by an abundance of wire work. It seems to be standard for period pieces these days, but it will never provide as much thrills and pure adrenaline as a more straight-forward fight flick like SPL or Flashpoint. And yes, these modern day action movies make use of wire work sometimes as well, but it’s not anywhere near the degree you find here. The film’s other negative is director Daniel Lee’s decision to have so many of the action scenes occur at night or in dimly lit rooms. We get glimpses of flips, moves, and strikes, but it’s often hard to tell what exactly happened.
On the plus side the movie makes time for more character work and love story than most action pictures do, and it works. Qinglong is far from a traditional hero and instead crosses over into the land of moral ambivalence. He kidnaps a woman named Qiao Hua (Vickie Zhao Wei) in order to force her father to spread false information about him. It’s a nice change of pace. Wei sadly doesn’t get to kick much ass here, but she’s still a strong actress who happens to be very easy on the eyes. Strangely, as in the recent Mulan, she’s asked once again to pass for a man for a brief amount of time and inexplicably succeeds.
The Upside: Some solid action; Vickie Zhao Wei
The Downside: Excessive wire work; poor lighting obscures too much of the action
On the Side: The fifteenth blade you see in Donnie Yen’s back is the dagger put there by the Weinsteins who acquired this film back in 2010 and only now are releasing it in the U.S.
Editor’s note: This review was originally posted during Fantastic Fest 2010, but we’re re-running it now as the film opens in limited theatrical and VOD release.