This prequel to the modest 2014 hit Brotherhood of Blades, rewinds the story to map-out Shen Lian’s (Chang Chen) difficult rise to the top of the Imperial Guard ladder. Like its predecessor, Blades II provides an intriguing, if somewhat underwhelming and convoluted, mixture of swooshing swordplay with a noir-style story of conspiracy and betrayal in a glamorous Wuxia setting: like an ancient Chinese interpretation The Big Heat with infinitely more fighting.
Opening with a prologue that depicts the aftermath of a devastating dynastic battle, Ming soldier Shen Lian saves a pair of his comrades, including an officer, from execution. Standing on the field of devastation, the survivors resolve to finding a better way to live and end the feuding that had devastated Chinese society, lest they end up us corpses themselves.
Eight years later, Lian is an upwardly-mobile Captain of the Imperial Guard, serving under Lu Wenzhao (Zhang Yi), the officer whose life he saved years before. Investigating what appears at first glance to be a routine murder case, Lian finds himself being drawn into, and implicated in, a complicated conspiracy of assassination and political backstabbing that reaches all the way to the imperial palace.
From the get-go, it’s a visually luscious affair and a consummately romantic realisation of ancient China. The characters are robust and attractive, with a lived-in sense of depth and authenticity. Chang’s grizzled, no-nonsense antihero is the epitome of the ruthless gumshoe cop, only bedecked in traditional armour and carrying a sword instead of a revolver. There’s a Mike Hammer-vibe to the performance which is complimented by his co-stars and, with the aid of complimentary romantic subplot, essentially provides most of the real joy of the movie.
Action-wise, it ticks almost all of the right boxes without ever really tipping over into seriously amazing territory. An early riverboat chase and a nighttime standoff in a forest provide the best of the set-piece drama before the movie settles into a comfortable rut of slicing and CGI blood that culminates in a violent crescendo that feels somewhat devoid of drama.
The most likely reason for this is probably the film’s insistence on muddling the narrative and leading the viewer down a rabbit hole of misinformation and red herrings. Occasionally it feels like Lu Yang’s principle concern is wrong-footing the audience, no matter the consequences and it’s a tactic that can leave you feeling slightly dizzy, particularly in the middle section of the story.
As a sword and sandals Wuxia epic it feels a tad light and safe; as a complex noir thriller it delivers a couple of body blows without ever landing a knockout punch, but there is some still some fun to be had watching this visually gorgeous, if narratively-muddled offering.
Dir: Lu Yang
Scr: Lu Yang, Chen Shu
Starring: Chang Chen, Yang Mi, Zhang Yi
Prd: Ning Hao, Wang Yibing
DOP: Hang Qiming
Music: Kawai Kenji
Runtime: 120 minutes