“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny” Movie Review


     What kept Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” from becoming another in a long line of martial arts films focused solely on upping the ante on fight choreography, was the filmmaker’s commitment to fleshing out a multi layered story that could stand on its own regardless of how awe inspiring the action was.  As it turned out, the Oscar darling (2001 winner for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Orginal Score, along with nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay) successfully astonished audiences and critics alike with a gravity defying array of tree and roof top fight sequences where ancient warriors could glide through the air and attack with startling accuracy.  When the two elements were combined, you had a film which soared to the top of every martial arts enthusiast’s all time list, but also a film that was appreciated by the mainstream for both its craft and story.  Strangely enough, it has taken sixteen years for the inevitable sequel, putting the filmmakers at an immediate disadvantage as a generation has passed with many current movie goers having not seen the original.

      Released as an exclusive to the streaming service Netflix, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny” arrives with a surprisingly low amount of fanfare when considering the success of the first film.  Taking the directing reigns this time is master fight choreographer Woo-Ping Yuen, who is responsible for many of the fight sequences fans actually remember over the last twenty or so years, including “Kill Bill”, “The Matrix”, and some of my all time favorite martial arts films like “Drunken Master” and “Fists of Legend”.  As a feature director, Yuen is more than capable with 29 films to his credit and an obvious comfort zone with the material.  From the very first shot in “Sword of Destiny”, you’ll notice the gorgeous compositions created by director of photography Newton Thomas Sigel (“X-Men”, “The Usual Suspects”) which are enhanced by the colorful and detailed work of production designer Grant Major (“The Lord of the Rings” Trilogy), as the duo fully utilizes today’s CGI technology to provide striking aerial views of the various towns, forests, and mountains the characters occupy.  It’s as if each shot was conceived from a gallery of paintings by well know artists and brought to life as the setting for the ultimate battle between good versus evil.

     But then the film falters significantly as it fails to measure up to the original with a paper thin plot and stilted dialogue which for some reason is performed in English rather than Mandarin.  Having Asian actors speak English doesn’t bode well for the realism needed to make a film like this seem accurate in its portrayal of the events depicted. John Fusco (“Young Guns”, “The Forbidden Kingdom”) brings forth a by the numbers story, low on any of the finer details and nuances which made the original such a mystifying piece of work.  Returning as Yu Shu Lien, Michelle Yeoh still has command of every scene she is in, but the overall plot robs her of the kind of opportunities she was given to shine 16 years ago.  

     Again, the story centers around the Green Destiny, the sword which belonged to Li Mu Bai, the now passed away lover of Yu Shu Lien.  Lien is returning to the location where the sword is now kept, but is attacked while en route there by a group of men led by Hades Dai (Jason Scott Lee) who intend on stealing the sword. After the attempt on Lien’s life is unsuccessful, Dai sends a lone assassin, Wei Fang (Harry Shum Jr.), to obtain the sword, but those plans are quickly thwarted by Lien and another warrior, Snow Vase (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) who arrives with the hope of being trained by Lien in the Iron Way.  Now caged, Fang tells Lien that Dai will send an unstoppable army to take the sword by force, and she responds by recruiting a small band of warriors with the honor to defend the sword and the people who have sworn to protect it.  This includes Silent Wolf (Donnie Yen), who by way of default works his way into the void left by Li Mu Bai’s (Chow Yun Fat) death in the first film and functions as the male lead.

     At times, “Sword of Destiny” is visually spectacular.  Yuen creates a number of appealing fight sequences staged within settings which tend to enhance the stakes of each battle.  One of which is a scene pitting Silent Wolf against Wei Fang on the surface of a frozen lake where every step, stomp, and kick has the potential to break the ice or cause one of the fighters to slip.  The icy surroundings and the taut and creative choreography is the highlight of the film, whereas many of the other fight sequences take place in typical areas such as taverns, courtyards, and ancient buildings all common to the genre.  The absence of a charismatic villain like Jen Yu, played by Ziyi Zhang in the original, really hurts the sequel as there is no complexity on the side of evil for the audience to explore.  Jason Scott Lee’s Hades Dai is as cardboard a villain as you will ever see, especially considering his significance in what transpires.  Sadly, he isn’t given a single memorable line with his work here being limited to snarling and looking wide eyed at the camera as if the director simply told him to look menacing.  And without a quality villain, “Sword of Destiny” suffers, as it is unable to reconnect audiences with the magical and awe inspiring appeal of Ang Lee’s masterpiece.  GRADE: C