Director: Yuen Woo-ping
Writer: John Fusco, Du Lu Wang
Producer: David Thwaites, Harvey Weinstein
Cast: Donnie Yen, Michelle Yeoh, Harry Shum, Jr., Jason Scott Lee, Roger Yuan, Woon Young Park, Eugenia Yuan, Ju Ju Chan, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Chris Pang, Veronica Ngo
Running Time: 103 min.
By Kyle Warner
Considering the popularity and critical acclaim of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a sequel probably seemed like a no-brainer. Well, it took 15 years and the evolution of a streaming service into a production company to make it happen, but we finally have our Crouching Tiger sequel. And though it’s not nearly as good as the original, I still liked it.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny catches up with Michelle Yeoh’s swordswoman Yu Shu Lien eighteen years after the events of the first film. After the death of her beloved Li Mu Bai, Yu Shu Lien drifted into exile and gave up on the hero life. She muses that a swordsman’s legacy is remembered for twenty years after his passing. It’s meant as praise but to her it feels like a curse. She is a martial arts master that longs to be forgotten by the world, haunted by all that could’ve been but wasn’t. When the death of her father figure Sir Te lures her back to the city, it’s not long before Yu Shu Lien is fighting for her life with the famed Green Destiny sword back in her possession.
At the same time that she returns to the world of martial arts, the evil Hades Dai (Jason Scott Lee) makes it his mission to capture the Green Destiny sword and make it his own. Willing to kill untold innocents in order to procure the sword, Hades Dai sends his most trusted assassins after Yu Shu Lien. Hoping to keep the Green Destiny sword out of Hades Dai’s hands, Yu Shu Lien calls for help, but only five warriors answer her call… and one among them is supposed to be dead.
In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Yu Shu Lien and Li Mu Bai are in love with each other, but since she was betrothed to another man (a man long dead before that film’s story ever began), the two held to their oaths and honor, never giving into desires. That man was Donnie Yen’s Silent Wolf and his return to Yu Shu Lien’s life is an unforeseen complication that couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time. Putting aside their past for the time being, the two must fight side by side while Hades Dai’s warriors close in around them.
Sword of Destiny is a downgrade from the original film and it’s hard to deny it’s not something of a cash-in. However, that doesn’t automatically make it a bad film. How many sequels are not considered downgrades from their original films? Still, yes, some things about the film definitely suggest that money, not art or story, was the main objective behind the making of the film. The most obvious of which, at least around these parts, is the fact that the film was made in English and not Chinese. Did this bug me? Yes. Did I get over it as the film went along? Well, yes and no. It’s not a decision I agree with but at least some of the actors (most notably Michelle Yeoh) provide strong performances in the language. The reason behind the change in spoken language is likely linked to the fact that Netflix makes it easy to binge-watch and just as easy to quit a film and move onto the next one. Sadly, large numbers of American viewers can’t stand a movie with subtitles. I think that number might’ve even gone up now that so many are focused on their phones all day. It’s not easy to browse Twitter and read subtitles at the same time (a comment I remember reading from a viewer who complained that Netflix’s Narcos had too much subtitled dialogue). Netflix undoubtedly knows all of this. The decision to make the film in English will rub many the wrong way but there’s no changing it now. For those who want what I guess would be called a more ‘authentic’ experience, the film can be watched in Chinese with English subtitles thanks to a dub (there are other language options as well). It’s a weird reversal for kung fu fans that are used to watching Chinese films dubbed into English.
Though Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is known for its high-wire fight sequences, it’s really a romantic tragedy at heart. Sword of Destiny attempts to capture that same tone but it’s undone by a few lackluster performances, some underwritten characters, and the film’s unnecessary attempts to add humor to the story with its supporting characters. While Donnie Yen may be an upgrade over Chow Yun-fat in the action sequences, he doesn’t have the same dramatic chemistry with Michelle Yeoh. There is tragedy to their relationship but no believable romance. Yen makes for a cool character when the film calls for him to show his martial arts prowess, but there’s not enough to his character to make him memorable. Elsewhere in the story, two young characters (played by Harry Shum Jr. and Natasha Liu Bordizzo) fair a little better, caught in a conflict that wrestles with duty and compassion. It’s not particularly deep, but the young actors are likable. Zhang Ziyi’s Jen Yu character returns from the first film but Zhang Ziyi does not. This time played by Shuya Chang (Revenge of the Green Dragons), Jen Yu is demoted to a small but important role in the plot which I will not divulge here.
In the villain role of Hades Dai, Jason Scott Lee (Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story) gives his most impressive film appearance since the early 90s when he was considered to be an up-and-coming star. Nearly unrecognizable from his younger self, Lee is all muscle and madness as the film’s central antagonist. There’s not much to Hades Dai beyond MORE POWER but it’s an entertaining villain and it makes me want to see more of Jason Scott Lee in future films. A less successful villain is Eugenia Yuan’s Blind Enchantress. Whereas the gravity defying fights of the original film hinted at fantasy elements within the world of Crouching Tiger, this film fully embraces the fantastic. I was open to the idea of a sorceress with prophetic abilities but the character is written paper-thin, with only a couple lines of dialogue to explain her motivations.
It’s Michelle Yeoh who makes the film, I think. It’s not until recently that I realized how much I love her character – even in the original film, which I watched in the week leading up to this, Yeoh is the one that I keep thinking back on. Yu Shu Lien is the best character that Yeoh’s ever played and she slips back into the role as though she’d never left it. Even the shift from Mandarin to English doesn’t hinder her performance. When she narrates her story, one almost forgets she’s speaking English at all. To me, that’s a sign of a great performance: when you forget what language you’re hearing.
Sword of Destiny doesn’t exactly feel like the natural progression of the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon story, but it uses enough of the original film’s cast and crew to make it feel like it belongs beside it (or at least a few steps beneath it). Ang Lee sadly did not return to the director’s chair. In his place is Yuen Woo-ping, the action choreographer of the first film and a director of many other unrelated martial arts pictures. I actually think it’s one of Yuen Woo-ping’s better films as a director, showing restraint in the drama and the skill of a master when putting together the action (unfortunately he remains tone-deaf when it comes to comedy, though). Along with cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (X-Men: Days of Future Past), Yuen Woo-ping captures some moments of dazzling beauty on film. The fight sequences range from very good to amazing. There is one sequence on a frozen lake that I truly loved – it’s pretty, it’s unique, and it’s just so damn cool. In the finale, the film relies on CGI more than I’d like, but it’s still a fun time.
Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was something rare: a beautiful rumination on love that also appealed to action junkies. The sequel is a fun martial arts action movie and little more. I mean, let’s be clear: you won’t be seeing Sword of Destiny nominated for Best Picture in 2017, okay? Occasionally Sword of Destiny appears to strive to be something more, but it never comes anywhere close to touching the greatness of the original. And maybe that’s okay. In my eyes, Sword of Destiny didn’t need to be another modern classic. Maybe the extended time between the original and the sequel has some part to play in that. By this time, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s place in film history is secure, and no lesser sequel will ruin its legacy. Sword of Destiny is a flawed film but it’s often a very entertaining one.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 7/10