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Brotherhood of Blades II: The Infernal Battlefield
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by Jay Seaver

"Same formula, almost the same ingredients."
3 stars

What's a filmmaker to do when a movie leaves the bulk of its characters dead at the end but performs well enough that the studio wants a sequel? They can try surrounding any survivors with new characters and see how that works, or do a prequel, or what's been increasingly popular in Hong Kong lately and just say the movie with a number after it is the same filmmakers and actors getting together to do the same sort of movie again, all valid ways of giving the audience more of that thing they enjoyed. For his follow-up to "Brotherhood of Blades", filmmaker Lu Yang seems to be doing all three, and it makes for a more muddled, less invigorating take on the genre than its predecessor, even if there's still some fun to be had.

It opens in 1619 as Han soldier Shen Lian (Chang Chen) crawls out from under the corpses of those slain at one of the many battles at Sarhu, soon rescuing some of his comrades about to be executed by the Manchus. One of them, Lu Wenzhao (Zhang Yi) looks at the carnage and despairs of finding another way to live. Eight years later, Lu is a commander of the palace guards and Shen a captain, the sort that's not quite corrupt enough to get ahead in the same way as Lieutenant Ling Yunkai (Jiang Wu), a nephew of the powerful eunuch lord Wei Zhongxian (King Shih-Chieh). Given a bonus that doesn't sit well, he spends it on some work being sold by a local monk on behalf of talented artist Bei Zhai, only to be sent to arrest the artist (now considered seditious) with Ling. When he's shocked to see that the only person at Bei's house is the girl (Yang Mi) who offered him an umbrella to keep the painting dry, he causes the whole thing to go sideways, and soon he is being partnered with shrewd detective Pei Lun (Lei Jiayin) to investigate the case on the one hand and blackmailed by swordswoman Master Ding (Xin Zhilei) to burn the Guards' archives. Is he a pawn in the plans of Wei, whose influence will likely wane with a new Emperor, or the prince (Yuan Wen-Kang) who nevertheless fears Wei's power?

One might be forgiven for not being sure that this is the same Shen Lian, given that this movie would seem to rewrite his backstory and features none of the other characters with whom he formed a tight-knit unit in the other film, and it sometimes seems that Chang Chen isn't quite sure what to do with what Lu and returning co-writer Chen Shu have given him. He gives Shen the same sort of weighted-down body language as before but never really figures out how to make it work with the broad streak of idealism that the story necessitates. He's a lot more interesting playing off Lei Jiayin than Yang Mi; Lei plays Pei Lun as a smart detective who enjoys seeing people squirm, while Yang Mi seldom gets to let the same sort of strong idealism guide her performance, mostly playing the vertex of a love triangle where she's never actually seen with her original partner.

The plot's a messier situation Shen faced in the first movie, although never quite so immediate, with so much happening above his pay grade while he's basically forced to be a better survivor than the schemers realize. Shen's closer to an honest cop in a dirty department than a dirty cop with some scruples here, and even with all the double-crosses and massive conspiracies going on (including a moment or two where the filmmakers do a surprisingly good job of making the trope of a character remembering something he saw on TV earlier in the film work in Eighteenth Century China), they still run out of twists fairly early, with the good guys on the run for long enough to draw things out until the big fight.

And if that finale with a rope bridge rickety enough that the horses want no part of it and a bunch of people with swords doesn't exactly go full Temple of Doom, it is nevertheless a bloody good time. The budget seems to be a bit higher this time around (the title cards certainly show more companies contributing to it!), and while some goes to things that are only superficially more impressive - the leather costumes manage to get blacker and slicker - Lu and action director Sang Lin often seem to have a little more room to work this time around. There are more close-in confrontations that let Chang Chen and Xin Zhilei, among others, confront each other without a lot of cutting or getting lost in hordes - although when there is a horde, the filmmakers do a nice job of highlighting the sensation of sort of force about to crush you, even if you're as good at fighting as Shen.

"Brotherhood of Blades 2" has the same basic formula as the first, half sword wuxia and half cops & corruption, but where that film seemed to have the right half of each, this one brings a little more of the genres' weaknesses along. It's still an interesting mix of influences, especially if you decide not to worry about how it fits with its predecessor.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=34650&reviewer=371
originally posted: 07/26/21 21:30:29
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USA
  01-Dec-2017
  DVD: 13-Feb-2018

UK
  N/A (15)

Australia
  03-Aug-2017 (MA)


Directed by
  Yang Lu

Written by
  Yang Lu
  Shu Chen

Cast
  Chen Chang
  Mi Yang
  Yi Zhang
  Jiayin Lei



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