I had such high hopes for The Guillotines after watching what was a mesmerizing two minutes of trailer awesomeness. I even watched it twice because it looked just that much up my alley. Unfortunately, the movie drives past my alley, gets on the freeway, hits a bridge and careens off the road into the water below.I have not nodded off this many times since seeing Old Gringo back in ’89 with Jane Fonda, Jimmy Smiths and Gregory Peck. I splashed water on my face, drank a gallon of ICEE to get a solid sugar rush going, but as soon as I went back to watching The Guillotines, my eyes became heavy.Filmmaker Andrew Lau is famous for directing Infernal Affairs, which turned into the American film The Departed (the one Scorsese finally got his overdue Oscar for). I did not think much of The Departed, despite being a huge Scorsese fan, but I did enjoy Infernal Affairs. Lau is a more than competent director, but The Guillotines is a total mess from after the opening moments on. In retrospect, it shouldn’t have been a surprise, considering it uses the same font titles as the Transformers series. I believe that what they were going for was on the level of 1976’s Master of the Flying Guillotine, but it fails miserably.Before I lace into the flick, I want to say that I loved the opening scene and the title sequence where we are shown just what this amazing weapon can do to its enemy. I have to assume that their entire CGI budget was used up for this opening sequence. From there, the story takes place in the Chinese caste society of the early Qing dynasty in 1740. In the Gansu region, a religious group known as The Herders is vehemently against the Qing’s rule. Led by Tianlang some fifteen years before, The Herders began killing imperial officials of higher caste. In order to defend against The Herders, members of the Manchu Dynasty establish a group of secret assassins known as “The Guillotines.” The Yongzheng is set on using his personal hit squad to eradicate anyone that is in defiance of his rule. At this point in the movie, I was already confused and trying to keep up with just who was who. Even with the subtitles, I was basically lost.As the emperor is able to maintain The Guillotines and their assignment, he begins a meteoric rise while implementing Western ideas, technology and even clothing. This very much reminded me of 2003’s The Last Samurai, but the stark difference is that that was a great film. This feels more like someone editing a bunch of dailies together to try and make a movie with an actual narrative. I do not really care when directors choose to ignore the three-act structure of a film, but an actual plot is vital. However, The Guillotines is desperately lacking in that department.
The film’s overall focus, a war between emperors too reliant on assassins who barely live up to their namesake (only a FEW flying guillotines the whole movie after the opening credits), makes for a crummy movie obsessed with all things Western in Chinese history. That loose concept may have worked well in The Last Samurai, but it fails here. The movie also suffers by showing random flashback sequences, which lead nowhere with so many underdeveloped characters to follow. To be fair, the language barrier is difficult to overcome, as the viewer tries to read and look up at the corresponding action. It is just an automatic process that our brain does when trying to decipher just exactly what is being said on screen.The least likable aspect of this flick is how hokey it looks before even getting out of the gate. Also, if the word “guillotine” is in the title, I want to see some damn guillotines! Not just in the 3D opening but throughout the whole movie!The film eventually falls into Last Samurai territory again, as the main battle becomes an arms race between those that want to use the new firearms of the West or stick with the old way of the blade. In all honesty, there is nothing in the film that even made me care. I have to stand by my very low rating of the film, because there is no substance to what is advertised as an action movie. I have seen more action on a New Jersey Transit bus ride into NYC between combatants arguing over whose seat is whose. Swing and a miss on The Guillotines. Although, I admitedly was hoping that the swing would be with a flying blade of execution. Apparently, it was not in the budget. They should rename the film: The Guillotines are in This For Just 8 Minutes.Den of Geek Rating: 1.5 out of 5 Stars