Feudal China gets a dash of spaghetti Western atmosphere in “14 Blades,” an above-average martial-arts actioner that reinforces Donnie Yen’s “Man With No Name” ambience. After a halting start, helmer Daniel Lee follows through on the improvement he showed in 2008 wuxia epic “Resurrection of the Dragon.” Stylish package has thesps hitting their marks (and each other), but also keeps the human drama from being swamped by wirework and CGI effects. Pic has done brisk biz on the mainland and other Asian territories since February; international ancillary should also be robust.In China during the Ming Dynasty, Qinglong (Yen, covered in Blue Dragon tattoos as per his character’s name) is an assured martial artist who leads the emperor’s band of crack assassins, called the Jinyiwei. The film’s English title refers to Qinglong’s personal arsenal, a large oblong box of 14 sharp weapons and other handy accessories he wields with a nimble mastery. Qinglong is ordered to keep the royal seal from falling into the hands of a vengeful insubordinate (Sammo Hung, in a cameo), thereby keeping China from plunging into civil war. On Qinglong’s trail is Tou Tou (Kate Tsui), a veiled, dreadlocked warrior woman whose emblematic cloak allows her to dazzle her opponents in combat (and to showcase the finesse of a South Korean f/x team). Making his way toward the border, Qinglong encounters aging patriarch Qiao Yong (Shaw Brothers vet Wu Ma, perfect), his feisty daughter, Qiao Hua (Zhao Wei), and their loyal bandits. After receiving help from the old man and his band, Qinglong kidnaps Qiao Hua but makes sure she’s well looked-after. Despite the circumstances, Qiao Hua falls in love with her captor, a development made believable by Zhao’s warm and affecting perf. Yen’s Eastwood-like poise is used to good effect here, and the romantic tension keeps the narrative effectively taut between the battle sequences. Action scenes, staged by Ku Huan-chiu, are unobtrusively helmed. Standout fight scene, in which Qinglong, armed only with chicken bones, takes on an array of bandits, also provides the pic’s most humorous sequence. Lensing is a tad flat, but action fans are unlikely to be distracted. Some intriguing costumes of Islamic influence, reflecting Qinglong’s westward journey, provide a visual high point. Rousing score by Henry Lai continues the musical allusions he began in “Resurrection of the Dragon,” recalling Ennio Morricone’s compositions for the films of Sergio Leone. No editor was credited on print caught.
A Visualizer Film (Hong Kong)/Shanghai Film Group, Desen Intl. Media (China) production. (International sales: Arclight Films, Sydney.) Produced by Susanna Tsang, Wang Tianyun. Directed by Daniel Lee. Screenplay, Lee, Abe Kwong.
Camera (color, widescreen), Leung Cheungtung; music, Henry Lai; art director, Cyrus Ho; action director, Ku Huan-chiu; sound (Dolby Digital), Ma Jie. Reviewed at Hong Kong Filmart, March 22, 2009. Running time: 113 MIN.