Andrew Lau's "The Guillotines" is a historical action epic set during the Qing dynasty that amounts to a bait-and-switch for wuxia fans stoked for steel-meets-flesh mayhem.
Reel 'em in with a mighty weapon: an intricately bladed discus hurled from a curling sword, which then locks on a victim's neck and cleanly decapitates. Up the stakes with the secret assassin clique of the title, led by stoic commander Leng (Ethan Juan) and tasked by the emperor to take down a dangerous rebel prophet named Wolf (Huang Xiaoming). Soon loyalties curdle, the Guillotines find themselves on the run, and a second half of vengeful, course-correcting adventure seems at hand.
Instead, the big reveal: a preachy, sociopolitical drama about oppression, outmoded leadership, and the simple beauty of a working class allowed to live in collective harmony. Gee, thanks.
There's a nod to the entwined-destiny of antagonists that Lau made much more gripping in his great crime flick
And that nasty, nifty, head-slicing tool? Another point-making prop when firearms and cannons become the emperor's weapons of choice and the Guillotines are rendered obsolete: War is now so impersonal!
An action fan could be forgiven for the medicinal taste that this slick but dissipating exercise leaves behind.
MPAA Rating: R for strong violent content.
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes.
Playing: At Laemmle Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills, and Playhouse 7, Pasadena.