Lu, Shen Lian, and Yichuan. Three sworn brothers, and deadly Jinyiwei Secret Police of the Imperial Guard. The new Emperor s first mission - find and annihilate the corrupt fugitive Eunuch Wei and his followers. But one mistake reveals the truth - the three men are pawns in a deadly game, unleashing a CHAIN of secrets, conspiracies, and lethal consequences.
Think of an alternate universe where John Le Carré wrote an old school kung-fu movie and you might have an idea where ‘Brotherhood of Blades’ is going. Numerous characters with personal motivations caught up in an over-arcing conspiracy, where any one of them could be the villain or friend. It’s actually a pretty refreshing idea for what could have otherwise been a run-of-the-mill action flick.
‘Brotherhood of Blades’ is a period martial arts actioner with grand aspirations, featuring stylish action set pieces and beautiful production design. Sadly, it doesn’t quite reach as high as it wants to go, but it gets pretty close. The film opens with a hasty bit of clunky exposition detailing that during the 1620’s the Head Eunuch leader of the Emperor’s elite Imperial Assassins, Wei Zhongxian - played by Shih-Chieh Chin - held sway over the Imperial Court controlling many of the lead assassins under his grip called the “Eunuch Clique,“ or if you’re listening to the English dubbing, the “Eunuch Sect,” which sounds much more respectable. “Eunuch Clique” sounds more like a gang of obnoxious kids in high school than a group of deadly assassins.
When the new Emperor, Chongzhen came to power he banished Wei, stripping him of all his authority, but members of the “Clique” remained. The new Emperor orders these men to be arrested and three of the most loyal members of the Imperial Assassins are tasked with hunting them down. Since Wei Zhongxian was in power for such a long time, his reach and influence remains vast and no one can be sure who is friend or foe.
Each member of the team lacks the necessary funds to live their ideal lives. Chen Lian (Chen Chang) dreams of freeing a young woman from a life as a consort. Lu Jianxing (Qianyuan Wang) dreams of career advancement, and in order to grease the wheels he needs to put more silver than he makes into the right hands. Jin Yichuan (Dong-xue Li) has a secret past that a former associate exploits by demanding frequent payment for his silence. The grand assignment to take down Wei is their chance for notoriety and better lives. It’s here where the film finds a rather unique territory to explore - these men are not entirely honorable. They’re good men at heart, but deeply flawed making their personal goals more realistic and interesting.
When the team catches up with Wei, Lian is handed a devil’s bargain, take piles of gold and let Wei live and risk death at the hands of the Secret Police, or leave the money, complete the assignment and kill Wei and risk death by the hands of Wei’s loyal private army. This should have been a compelling scenario, especially as elements of a deeper conspiracy come to light and the three Imperial Assassins realize they’ve been played for patsies. Unfortunately the movie solves the mystery for the audience right away rather than letting the characters take a journey to discover the truth.
While the plot may leave much to be desired, this is a beautiful movie to look at. Clearly little expense was spared to recreate the late Ming Dynasty. From costuming to the production design to the intricate assortment of weapons - there is a lot to take in and much for the eyes to enjoy. For the number of historical Chinese epics that have been produced in the wake of ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’ and ‘Hero’ this movie is refreshingly beautiful. Nothing feels forced or faked. This feels like a world you could visit.
But this is a martial arts film, what about the intricate fight sequences? Just watching this movie, you can easily see that this cast is a talented set of athletes with a lot of experience. Gone is the flamboyant slow motion wirework as ‘Brotherhood of Blades’ grounds the action in fast and vicious close action. Unfortunately at times the camera is far too close and entirely too shaky to fully appreciate this cast’s abilities. There is an odd instance in the beginning of the film, where it appears as if single frames of the film were removed to add tension and excitement - but it just looks odd and unnecessarily herky-jerky. The silver lining is there are a number of fantastic fight sequences that make this movie worth the journey. One particular scene sees our heroes cut off in an enemy stronghold, outnumbered 12 to 1 - and it is simply awesome to see.
I appreciate it when a movie tries to be more than what its particular genre defines. I appreciate the filmmakers tring to craft an intricate story with relatable characters around some well executed fight sequences. However, the main problem I have for ‘Brotherhood of Blades,’ is that the plot serves the dessert before the main course. If the mystery had been maintained throughout, letting it slowly unravel, this would have been a near perfect action movie. As it rests now - it’s pretty solid entertainment and worth the time.
The disc’s packaging from Well Go USA Entertainment lists the picture at 16:9 while it is very obviously 2.35:1. Aside from the misprint, this picture is absolutely stunning. There is an incredible amount of detail in every frame. You can see every single hair, the stitching of the ornate clothing, and the intricate details on the weapons in this beautiful 1080p presentation.
Much of the movie takes place at night and in shadows so it is a great relief to see solid, inky black levels and shadows that help establish a fantastic sense of depth. Color is also fantastic here as nothing is lost in the transition from day to night. Primaries have the right amount of pop to them and never feel hot. Flesh tones are also nice and even as characters never appear too pink or sickly-pale and contrast never seems to be an issue. First rate picture.
Sound is also fantastic for this film. The film’s primary track, a Mandarin DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is music to the ears. Swards sing and slash throughout the channels and arrows zip through the air using the full range of your sound system. Likewise, the spoken dialog hits the right notes hovering in the midranges, it never overpowers the mix and leaves things nice and even. The English subtitles are fairly accurate and complement this Mandarin language track nicely. 4 out of 5 for this track.
Things aren’t quite as well off for the English Dubbed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. Everything feels flat and lifeless here. Sounds of fighting move about the channels in an attempt at imaging, but the soundeffects feel so fake and out of place they become distracting. Likewise the dubbed voices feel as though they were mixed above the rest of the sound effects and score, so they sound more like narration than an actual character speaking on screen. 2 out of 5 for this track.
In another packaging anomaly, nonspecific “Bonus Features” are listed, however once you finally reach the main menu, you discover those “Bonus Features” are in fact the preview trailers for other Well Go USA movie releases that you couldn’t skip but instead could only fast forward or sit and endure.
Trailer (HD 1:36) This 96 second preview trailer actually does a solid job of setting up the movie but perhaps gives away a tad too much.
If you’re looking for a return to hard hitting, close action martial arts films - you’re going to have a great time with ‘Brotherhood of Blades.’ While the plot mechanics are far from perfect, the story is still compelling and offers fantastic setup for some well choreographed and intense fight sequences. With a rock solid picture and stellar Mandarin audio track, Well Go USA did a fantastic job bringing this movie to Blu-ray. Recommended.