The Chinese import "14 Blades," shot in 2009, is a kind of Eastern western whose one-note characters and convoluted plot are nearly swallowed up whole by this martial arts film's dizzyingly wrought action scenes. Fortunately, director, co-writer and production designer Daniel Lee keeps things moving so quickly, there's little time to worry about such basics as where we are or what's actually going on.
The story, for what it's worth, involves Qinlong (Hong Kong superstar Donnie Yen), a honcho in an ancient Chinese Secret Service-type group known as the Jinyiwei, who's framed in a conspiracy to steal the emperor's imperial seal. Bottom line: This is not a good thing.
So Qinlong, a steely warrior who's like the late-Ming dynasty version of Clint Eastwood's "man with no name" (but with a name), ends up on the run to restore the emperor to power — with a little help from those swords of the title.
En route, Qinlong joins up with something called the Justice Escort Agency (no, not that kind of escort), takes its leader's comely daughter (Wei Zhao) hostage, crosses miles of rough terrain by horse and fends off evil henchmen and former Jinyiwei allies. Ultimately, Qinlong must battle Tuo Tuo (Kate Tsui), a sleek and lethal female combatant, and it ain't pretty.
The movie's raison d'etre, its many highflying, wildly violent, often digitally enhanced kung fu fighting sequences, are edited with so much sleight of hand they may evoke more eye rolls than gasps. But the hard-working sound design, effectively stark visual palette and propulsive score do manage to impress.
MPAA rating: R for violence and bloody images.
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes. In Mandarin with English subtitles.