The Brotherhood of Blades
Set during the final years of the Ming dynasty, Brotherhood of Blades tells the tale of three master assassins who are tasked to seek out and kill the infamous eunuch Wei Zhongxian. However, when they are given this mission, the sword brothers find themselves dragged into a conspiracy that could tear the Empire apart.
Martial arts films are predominantly a visual film genre, focusing on stylish action sequences and lavish sets, if the film is set during a period of Chinese history; so let's get the non-visual stuff out of the way first. The story of Brotherhood of Blades is fine. It doesn't provide a simmering conspiracy thriller, a la Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, or any political intrigue like Hero, but it certainly provides a decent enough backdrop to the fight scenes. Though I will say that I did feel a little out of the loop when it came to understanding the period and the historical figure of Wei Zhongxian, though this may have been because I am not of Chinese heritage.
The characters are easily identifiable, and two of the main trio are likeable and fun. However, the main character Shen Lian played by Chang Chen, is a brooding wall of boring. There are attempts at character development, but from his first appearance to his final one, I couldn't connect with him as a character, and thus his fights lost all meaning for me. Meanwhile, Wang Qianyuan as Lu Jian Xing has some absolutely fantastic emotional scenes as the after effects of a bizarre choice made by Shen Lian are felt. So does Ethan Li as the young Jin Yi Chuan, who also provides some intrigue through his character backstory.
Visually the film is pretty striking. The costumes are interesting, and the mise-en-scene is used to great effect. I will say that it can get a bit confusing identifying the main characters during the hectic battles due to their dark uniforms, but thanks to unique weapons and fighting styles these issues are quickly resolved. I am not sure how period accurate they are, but that didn't really matter, the characters did look cool posing in them.
Enough of the tedious technical film analysis, let's get to the meat of the issue; does Brotherhood of Blades have good fight scenes, it is, after all, a martial arts film. The short answer is possibly. Again, because of my issue getting behind Shen Lian as a character, his fights didn't feel as impactful as they should have, especially his duels with the film’s antagonist. However, when there was a fight with Lu Jian Xing and Jin Yi Chuan, I was on the edge of my seat. The style of fight scenes is somewhere between the elegance of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and the brutality of The Raid films, with buckets of blood (CGI unfortunately), rapid cutting and camera shake; this is definitely the case during one of the earlier fights against an entire household. It is a shame that Shen Lian didn't gel with me as I am sure that I would have enjoyed this film a lot.
While "One of the best martial arts films of the last 30 years" may be pushing it a little bit, there are some strange character moments, and the plot seems far too quick and far too slow all at once, I cannot deny that Jackie Chan's plots were a little bare on the ground. Brotherhood of Blades is a sumptuous visual feast of a film. The action set pieces are stylish and grandiose, and the plot tries its hand at a political conspiracy. It's not a classic, but it was definitely fun while I was watching it.
The disc that contains the film, Brotherhood of Blades is well made mechanically. The visuals and the audio are not hampered by shoddy transferring. The menus are easily navigable, and the rest of the disc feels intuitive and user-friendly; it should, because it only contains the film, scene selection and audio set up. Secondsight has provided a barebones release, without any frills at all which is always a little disappointing.
So the film is sort of middling, and the disc is lacking those essential extras that make it worth taking this movie home. So then it must not be a recommendation. Well, perhaps not, I always lament that there aren't many readily available martial arts movies. Brotherhood of Blades may not be an instant classic like Hero or House of Flying Daggers, but this film will appeal to fans of the Wuxia genre and hopefully, Brotherhood of Blades will act as an introduction to those new to martial arts movies and the start of a lifelong obsession with deadly dances on screen. Though saying that Broherhood of Blades is also comming to on-demand services as well, so maybe that is the best way to track it down for now.