Saturday, February 27, 2016


(US/China - 2016)

Directed by Yuen Wo-Ping. Written by John Fusco. Cast: Donnie Yen, Michelle Yeoh, Harry Shum Jr, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Jason Scott Lee, Eugenia Yuan, Roger Yuan, Juju Chan, Chris Pang, Woon Young Park, Darryl Quan, Veronica Ngo, Gary Young, Shuya Chang. (Unrated, 101 mins)

On the heels of last year's success of MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, JURASSIC WORLD, and STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, and despite the disappointment of TERMINATOR: GENISYS, everything old is new again. 2016 is now the year of the belated and unnecessary sequel that you're getting whether you want it or not: we've already had ZOOLANDER 2 (following the 2001 original) met with shrugging ambivalence, with MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING 2 (first film released in 2002), AMITYVILLE: THE AWAKENING (11 years since the remake), ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS (MUPPETS MOST WANTED director James Bobin's followup to Tim Burton's little-loved 2010 ALICE IN WONDERLAND), INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE (a Will Smith-less sequel to the 1996 blockbuster), KINDERGARTEN COP 2 (starring Dolph Lundgren, 26 years after the Arnold Schwarzenegger hit), THE STRANGERS 2 (eight years since the first one), and BAD SANTA 2 (13 years) on the slate. No one was really clamoring for further installments of any of these films (apparently, Nia Vardalos forgot that nobody gave a shit about the short-lived 2003 TV spinoff MY BIG FAT GREEK LIFE, cancelled by CBS after seven episodes), and such is the case with CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON: SWORD OF DESTINY, which arrives 16 years after Ang Lee's revered Oscar-winner, a perfectly-balanced mix of arthouse drama and mainstream action, and the key film in making Asian wuxia accessible in the US. None of the original film's primary creative personnel, from Lee on down, are involved in this sequel with the exception of veteran martial-arts coordinator Yuen Wo-Ping, who's been promoted to director in Lee's stead. Of the 2000 film's cast, only Michelle Yeoh reprises her role as the stoical, dedicated warrior Yu Shu Lien. Unlike the first Mandarin-spoken installment, the sequel was filmed in English, and other than a limited number of IMAX screenings, is debuting on Netflix.

CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON is a great film, a masterpiece deserving of all its accolades and one that, aside from some sporadic instances of wonky wire work that was the best they could do at the time, has aged beautifully and lost none of its power. It is a timeless and heart-wrenching tale of honor and unrequited love and the inability to turn back the hands of time, with parallels drawn between multi-layered characters of different generations. CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON: SWORD OF DESTINY is...not that. In many ways, it's a dumbed-down, less-complicated remake of the first film. Set 18 years later, the Green Destiny, the famed sword that once belonged to the late Li Mu Bai (played in the original by Chow Yun Fat), is again stolen from the compound of Sir Te, who has just passed away and Yu Shu Lien has arrived to pay respect to her mentor. While the sword goes through a number of hands throughout the film, the initial thief, Wei Feng (Harry Shum Jr) was sent by the nefarious Hades Dai (a scenery-chewing Jason Scott Lee), an evil warlord who has clashed with the Te family and with Yu Shu Lien in the past. Wei Fang is thwarted by young Snow Vase (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), who wishes to learn from the wise Yu Shu Lien. Meanwhile, Te's son (Gary Young) has hired enigmatic warrior Silent Wolf (IP MAN's Donnie Yen), a legend long presumed dead following an ill-fated battle with Hades Dai, and his ragtag group of mercenaries to track down the Green Destiny. Silent Wolf was also the fiance of Yu Shu Lien in the years after she grieved for Li Mu Bai, a love that was professed only in the final moments of Li's life.

Throughout much of SWORD OF DESTINY's running time, it just seems that screenwriter John Fusco (YOUNG GUNS, THUNDERHEART, and the Netflix series MARCO POLO) is simply recycling the events of the 2000 film. Parallels abound all over the place--the theft of the Green Destiny, Yu Shu Lien taking a young protege under her wing (Bordizzo looks exactly like the first film's Ziyi Zhang), an extended mid-film flashback that shows the connection between the two younger lead characters, and another case of a long-lost love breaking Yu Shu Lien's heart once more. Yuen is better known to American audiences for his martial-arts coordinator work on films like THE MATRIX and KILL BILL, but he also directed a number of early Jackie Chan films, like SNAKE IN THE EAGLE'S SHADOW and DRUNKEN MASTER (both 1978) as well as 1993's IRON MONKEY, which was retooled by the Weinsteins for its US release in 2001, which only came about following the success of CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. Yuen's directing efforts have been sporadic over the last 20 or so years, but his action scenes remain curiously inert here, or at least pale in comparison to the work he did for Lee 16 years ago. Something's just missing from this sequel, and it's not just Lee, the writers, and the bulk of the cast. Lee's film was an immersive experience, while SWORD OF DESTINY leaves you cold and distant, and a lot of that is due to the distractingly digital world in which it takes place (even a potentially great battle on a frozen lake sees its impact drastically diminished by CGI artifice). Lee used as many actual locations as possible in the original, but with the exception of some exteriors shot in Auckland, New Zealand, everything here has that distinct and lifeless "actor standing in front of a greenscreen" look. Lee's film was breathtaking because it presented a world that, even with the wire work, was a living, breathing, tangible thing. SWORD never has a chance to achieve that.

It also doesn't have Chow acting opposite Yeoh, which gave the first film so much of its rock-solid foundation. Yeoh is very good here and ably carries the film--without her, the whole thing would likely be a lost cause--but her Yu Shu Lien doesn't have the same chemistry with Yen's Silent Wolf that she had with Chow's Li Mu Bai, and that's likely because despite his top billing, Yen is absent for long stretches and really only serves as a guest star in a supporting role. CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON: SWORD OF DESTINY has more fantastical elements (yes, even more than flying up on rooftops and running across water), like an evil blind sorceress (Eugenia Yuan) and a general vibe that makes it feel more like CROUCHING TIGER, GAME OF THRONES. It looks and plays like a DTV sequel or the debut episode of a CROUCHING TIGER cable series spinoff, watchable and by no means terrible, but unable to accomplish anything more than being an inferior knockoff of something far more lasting and significant.

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