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Brotherhood of Blades
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by Jay Seaver

"Dirty cops with swords."
4 stars

A Shaw Brothers-style story told in thoroughly modern fashion, "Brotherhood of Blades" isn't the most intricate thriller of the most astounding kung fu, but it's an entertaining middle ground for those who enjoy the genre a bit of martial-arts action but can't get into the rhythms or cultural specifics of those movies. Filmmaker Lu Yang delivers some solid wuxia action, even if one is not inclined to learn terms like "wuxia".

As it opens in 1627, Emperor Chongzhen (Ye Xiangming) has recently ascended to the throne, and his first action is to send the Imperial Assassins after Wei Zhongxian (King Shih-Chieh), whose "Eunuch's Clique" had effective control of the court under Chongzhen's predecessor. After the team of Lu Jianxing (Wang Qianyuan), Shen Lian (Chang Chen), and Jin Yichuan (Ethan Li Dong-Xue) successfully eliminates one crony, they are sent after Wei himself, in part because, as secret police leader Han Kuang (Zhao Lixin) points out, they are too low in status to have been a target for corruption. But, of course, everyone in the capital has an agenda that the rich and influential Wei and those who oppose him can influence, including the assassins - Lu is angling for a promotion, Shen would like to buy the freedom of courtesan Zhou Miaotong (Cecilia Liu Shishi), and Jin is being blackmailed by Ding Xiu (Zhou Yiwei) about his criminal past - while all the scheming going on above them is certain to render them loose ends to be eliminated.

The script by Lu and co-writer Chen Shu is maybe not entirely efficient - looked at as a whole, it certainly has a fair amount of elements that the movie doesn't exactly need - but it's impressively well-balanced. The main trio, by and large, are all able to have their own things going on without one completely taking center stage at the expense of the others, the conspiracy has enough going on to be interesting without pushing the heroes off to the side, and the spots where things circle back around to link up don't feel cheap. As director, he keeps all of that moving at a comfortable clip and makes the climax satisfying, although it could maybe do without the one last action sequence, a classic "let's take the last fight away from the rest of the movie's context" deal.

That said, it's a pretty good fight, and by and large action director Sang Lin does nice work as he works with Lu to stage the action. With the assassins established early on as an elite force and not much room in the story for other characters beyond Wei's bodyguard (Zhu Dan) to be especially great at martial arts, they mostly go for "throw a small army at these three guys" and it by and large works; everyone seems to be able to handle a sword well enough to keep it moving and it keeps dogpiling to a minimum. Lu uses hails of arrows the way a more modern movie might use automatic weapons fire, but still has fun giving characters different weapons and seeing how they match up against each other.

He and his cast also hit on the right sort of gritty amorality to make the film feel hit differently from a Hong Kong period action movie (often about legends) or the typical Mainland one (where the characters often map to specific modern types and approved attitudes). Chang Chen, in particular, feels comfortable letting the audience see Shen Lian as a piece of work, seemingly more comfortable as an assassin than the soldier or cop he and the crew are also expected to be, with some cruelty in his introduction and later aloofness. Li Dong-Xue and Wang Qianyuan have a little of that too, but Jin gets to play romantic while Lu is frustrated by the everyday corruption necessary to get ahead. King Shih-Chieh is clearly having a ball as Wei, a villain with nothing left to lose as the walls close in, while Zhao Lixin, Nie Yuan, Zhou Yiwei, and others create an enjoyable snake pit.

There's a dirty cops versus grandly corrupt officials vibe to it, and that turns out to be a good way into this material, probably even more so if the typical Chinese palace/temple intrigue leaves one cold or confused. It may not have the best twists or the best swordplay, but it does everything it attempts wee enough to make for an entertaining couple hours.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=34651&reviewer=371
originally posted: 07/26/21 21:35:53
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USA
  N/A (NR)
  DVD: 10-Feb-2015

UK
  N/A (15)

Australia
  06-Nov-2014 (MA)


Directed by
  Yang Lu

Written by
  Shu Chen
  Yang Lu

Cast
  Chen Chang
  Dong-xue Li
  Qianyuan Wang
  Shih-Chieh King
  Shishi Liu
  Lixin Zhao
  Yiwei Zhou



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