Reign of Assassins (2010) Review

Reign of Assassins | DVD (Anchor Bay)

Reign of Assassins | DVD (Anchor Bay)

AKA: Rain of Sword
Director: Su Chao-Bin
Writer: Su Chao-Bin
Producer: John Woo, Terence Chang
Cast: Michelle Yeoh, Jeong Wu Seong, Wang Xue Qi, Barbie Hsu, Kelly Lin, Shawn Yue, Nina Pau, Guo Xiao Dong, Matt Wu, Leon Dai, Jiang Yiyan, Hu Xiao Guang
Running Time: 117 min.

By Kyle Warner

As a fan of John Woo and star Michelle Yeoh, Reign of Assassins was once a film I couldn’t wait to see. Then, like the rest of America, I was forced to wait. And wait… It’s been six long years since the film was originally released in China but Reign of Assassins has finally received a DVD release in the States. In the time since its original release, John Woo’s been making more period epics in China (that much of his Western fans have yet to see), whereas Yeoh is doing more and more Hollywood productions. It really feels like more than six years have passed. But it’s finally here and we all get to see it.

Reign of Assassins starts with an animated segment that tells the story of a monk named Bodhi. Before his death, Bodhi became a master martial artist. And after his death, his remains have been rumored to grant extraordinary power to any martial artist who possesses them. We enter the story as the Dark Stone, a league of assassins led by the Wheel King (a very raspy Wang Xueqi), attempts to steal Bodhi’s remains from a prominent family. The family is killed, the remains are stolen, and the young female assassin (Kelly Lin) betrays her comrades and runs off with Bodhi’s corpse.

Instead of attempting to achieve ultimate power, Kelly Lin’s assassin ultimately decides to give up the life of martial arts and settle down in a more normal lifestyle. But first, she goes to a doctor and asks for a new face so as to avoid her enemies (the doctor alters her face by sticking insects beneath her skin to gnaw away at her bone structure. We don’t see the torture of the surgery but just the idea is terrifying). After a passage of time, off come the bandages and Kelly Lin becomes Michelle Yeoh (but the voice remains the same. I’m not certain, but I don’t think we actually hear Yeoh utter a word in the movie). Years pass and the woman, now going by the name Zeng Jing, blends into society as a merchant. However, the martial arts world’s search for Bodhi’s remains continues, and she cannot outrun her past forever.

As far as MacGuffins go, the crispy corpse of a badass monk ranks up there as one of the stranger ones I’ve heard of. And I enjoy odd ideas that you don’t see all the time. But the rest of the plot is a little beyond belief, relying on coincidences, body switches, and more than one supposedly dead person coming back to life. It’s like a soap opera with kung fu.

It should be noted that I watched the international version of the film, which is more than 10 minutes shorter than the cut released in China. What was edited and where, I have no idea. It’s my suspicion that many of the cuts came in the first act of the film, which is edited with such frenetic pacing that it’s occasionally difficult to follow.

Though written and directed by Su Chao-Bin (Silk), the film’s promotional material mainly focuses on producer and co-director John Woo (Red Cliff). It’s unclear how much credit Woo deserves as a co-director, though it’s said that he was on set almost daily, spent time in the editing room in post, and was the main director for a sequence featuring his daughter, Angeles Woo (The Crossing). Watching the movie, it’s easy to make comparisons to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, as both films feature Michelle Yeoh, wire-fu, and a couple similar plot developments. But it’s clear from the start that Su and Woo have a totally different kind of film in mind, and they never go for the same sort of visual poetry that Ang Lee achieved. Reign of Assassins is a wuxia action movie with a healthy dose of romance thrown in, but it is no art film.

Michelle Yeoh is pretty solid in her first major martial arts-heavy role since Crouching Tiger nearly ten years prior. It’s a bit odd to watch her performance done in a different voice but that’s part of the film’s bizarre charm. Korean actor Jung Woo-sung (The Good, the Bad, the Weird) plays Yeoh’s lover in the more laidback second-act of the assassin’s life. I’ve always liked Jung and thought he did well in a role that was likely a challenge for him, as it required him to speak Mandarin. As the Wheel King, Wang Xueqi (Bodyguards and Assassins) is a bit over-the-top, with a whispery villain’s voice and a hood that obscures much of his face. The Wheel King’s motivations for obtaining the dead monk’s remains are certainly eye-opening, and it makes for one of the film’s more, umm, amusing developments. The rest of the Wheel King’s Dark Stone assassins are likable in their own ways, but they lack much in the way of character development beyond their main fighting style attributes. Still, actors Barbie Hsu (Croczilla), Shawn Yue (Wild City), and Leon Dai (Yi Yi) make good work of their limited screen time.

There are a few cool especially cool moments in the film, like the bank robbery performed via martial arts, and the film’s final fight sequence that successfully mixes drama and action to make for a satisfying finale. However, I still feel the story disappoints.

Reign of Assassins is an entertaining, if unremarkable wuxia action movie that ranks a few notches below some of the genre’s finer efforts from recent years. Whether it was worth the wait is up for you to decide. I certainly would not deter curious viewers from watching the film. Just keep your expectations in check.

Kyle Warner’s Review: 6/10

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4 Responses to Reign of Assassins (2010) Review

  1. ColinJ says:

    Is THE CROSSING any good?

    I loved a RED CLIFF but THE CROSSING looked like Woo’s sappy melodrama was cranked up to eleven.

  2. Paul Bramhall says:

    Nice review Kyle, although I feel conflicted at giving the movie a score that you’re missing 10 minutes of footage from. I watched this at the time of its release in 2010, and loved it. But just like in the massacred U.S. releases of ‘Wu Xia (re-titled ‘Dragon’)’ and ‘Tom Yum Goong’ (re-titled ‘The Protector’)’, the quiet moments rob the productions of their integrity, reducing them to appeal to the lowest common denominator (although after recent U.S. events, perhaps the Weinsteins were onto something after all :-P).

    ‘Reign of Assassins’ has plenty of quiet moments that add layers to the story. I don’t know what’s missing, but scenes like when Shawn Yue says goodbye to his wife while she sleeps, knowing that it could be the last time he’ll see her, added little touches that push it beyond just being an average wuxia for me.

    It was nice to see Jung Woo-sung is a Chinese production, and I thought he and Yeoh had good onscreen chemistry. Topped off with some fresh and energetic action sequences, I’d most likely give it a 7.5 or 8.

    • Kyle Warner says:

      “Nice review Kyle, although I feel conflicted at giving the movie a score that you’re missing 10 minutes of footage from.” Fair enough. Consider this my review of the ‘international cut’ then! I didn’t even know I was watching an abbreviated version until after I’d committed to the review and saw that the film’s running time listed on IMDB and other sites didn’t match up with what I’d just seen. If I ever get the chance to see the original, longer version, I will definitely do so. Because, like you say, Weinstein edits have wrecked films in the past.

      “after recent U.S. events, perhaps the Weinsteins were onto something after all” You make me sad! But again, you may be right. I’m tempted to go on and ponder how our arts may begin to reflect our politics, but I’ll hold back. It’s been a crazy week and I haven’t the energy, heh.

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