"The Assassins" Chinese Theatrical Poster
Director: Zhao Linshan
Writer: Wang Bin
Producer: Zhao Xiaoding
Cast: Chow Yun Fat, Crystal Liu Yi Fei, Tamaki Hiroshi, Alec Su You Peng, Annie Yi Neng Jing, Ni Dahong, Yan Ni, Wu Xiu Bo, Yao Lu, Nie Yuan, Roy Cheung Yiu Yeung, Law Kar Ying, Tong Chun Chung, Ken Tong Chun Yip
Running Time: 107 min.
While Chow Yun-fat never really left the world of acting, it’s fair to say he’s been making a ‘comeback’ to Chinese filmmaking after the debacle that was 2009’s “Dragonball: Evolution.” That film may have represented the lowpoint of Chow’s career in Hollywood, but he’s been bouncing back with roles in movies like “Confucius” and “Let the Bullets Fly.” The upcoming gangster epic “The Last Tycoon” is probably his most anticipated by fans, and it’s been receiving positive advance reviews from venues like the Hollywood Reporter; but before we get to see what Wong Jing has cooked up for us with that film, the 2012 historical epic “The Assassins” is here with a North American release from Well Go USA.
This film from first-time director Linshan Zhao casts Chow Yun-fat in the lead role of Cao Cao, a powerful military leader during the Three Kingdoms period. The goal was clearly to provide a more three-dimensional portrayal of this feared man, who sought to unite China through bloodshed. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, after all – and placing a talented actor such as Chow Yun-fat in the role also helps add some nuance to a character that could have easily been just a war monger.
The issue with these kinds of costume epics, with rulers engaging in backstabbing and infidelities, is that they tend to achieve a certain level of Shakespearean gravitas or else feel like a soap opera. Unfortunately, “The Assassins” falls into the later category. Most of the film’s runtime consists of Cao Cao’s own court and various political affiliations plotting against him while Cao Cao himself mourns his lot in life. Chow Yun-fat is as good as you’d expect him to be, but the actors that support him are rarely able to rise above the screenplay’s histrionics.
When the action sequences do come, they feel fantastical and out of place compared to the palace drama of the rest of the film. An early assassination attempt features ninja-like attackers running across a net of ropes like it’s the trapeze in a circus of death. In another film, this sequence might be an action highlight – but the choreography isn’t terribly exciting and the almost manga-like spectacle clashes with the realism of the movie as a whole.
It should be noted that Chow Yun-fat’s “Let the Bullets Fly” co-star Jiang Wen managed to deliver a complex portrayal of Cao Cao in the midst of an all-out action movie (Donnie Yen’s “The Last Bladesman“). Meanwhile, Chow Yun-fat himself was a highlight in Zhang Yimou’s lavish costume epic “The Curse of the Golden Flower” back in 2006, which was successful at blending high drama with wire-assisted action. Both those films proved more entertaining than “The Assassins,” which comes across as a bit too dour and sloppily directed in comparison. Die-hard fans of Chow Yun-fat can likely round the score for this film up but “The Assassins” doesn’t have what it takes to stand out in a crowded genre. It looks like John Woo’s “Red Cliff” will remain the definitive Three Kingdoms saga for awhile longer.
HKFanatic’s Rating: 5.5/10