Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword Of Destiny (2016) - Movie Review

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon may not be a perfect film, but it is most certainly a great film. Officially putting Ang Lee on the map, and given his output we can debate the worth of that till kingdom come, its combination of breath-taking fight scenes and phenomenal writing, not to mention outright iconic music, resulted in what I would genuinely consider to be a work of art. But more so than its merits as a film in its own right, its place within film history is difficult to ignore as well. An international co-production, it has gone into legend for basically breaking the Hollywood system and what films should be expected to make an commercial impact, becoming an exception to the rule that would end up having new rules written around it. With all this in mind, and considering the unexpected quality control that can go into Netflix releases, the prospect of a sequel to a film like this is certainly interesting. But considering the Sequel Rules made around those that are made over a decade after the fact, and the low expectations for success, how did it turn out?

The plot: 18 years after the death of the legendary swordsman Li Mu Bai, Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) has lived in isolation ever since that tragic event. However, after her carriage is attacked by warriors from the West Lotus clan, led by the vicious warlord Hades Dai (Jason Scott Lee), she is drawn once again into the criminal underworld. A new war is about to begin, centred on Li Mu Bai’s fabled weapon the Green Destiny sword, and it’s up to Shu Lien and some new faces to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands yet again.

While only having one cast member returning from the original film, the cast is nonetheless full of recognisable names in the right circles. Yeoh may be severely toned-down this time around, but she still brings that same emotional intelligence that made her performance as Shu Lien so good to begin with. Scott Lee brings a decent amount of menace to his role, Harry Shum Jr. is okay as lower-ranking member of White Lotus Wei Fang, and quite frankly it’s far better than I would have expected from anyone associated with Glee, Natasha Liu Bordizzo as the morally ambiguous sword-maiden Snow Vase is also just okay, and Donnie Yen is… well, it’s Donnie Yen; I don’t think the guy has found a role yet that he doesn’t make work. Even if the role itself is rather problematic, his turn as Silent Wolf is decent enough.

The action scenes are… okay. More akin to Stephen Chow than the high-flying elegance of the original, it still has a certain grace to it. Makes sense, considering the fight choreographer Woo-Ping Yuen not only worked on the original film (and has returned this time around as director), but has also worked on some of the more famous examples of Western fight choreography with the Matrix and Kill Bills films. While I may miss the more spacious cinematography put into the original fight scenes by Peter Pau, the more proximal look here does end up fitting what we are given.

As strange as it may sound for a film that was by design a martial-arts film, the fight scenes were hardly the most interesting aspect of the original. Rather, it was the detailed character writing and strong themes that were put into the people who were taking part in those fights. Writer John Fusco’s last role as screenwriter was with The Forbidden Kingdom, which was pretty good if somewhat rough around the edges; the man has shown ability within this genre before. Not here, however, as the only returning character from the first film feels less aged and more just a shadow of her former self, and the new characters we get are characterised through signifiers, not traits. As a follow-up to a film where even the smaller characters like the bumbling guard and the disguised police officer with a vendetta against Jade Fox were fleshed out to within an inch of their life, to say this pales in comparison is an understatement.

This being touted as a sequel to Crouching Tiger is probably it’s biggest fault, as along with failing to be as profound as the original, this film just doesn’t seem to understand what made it work in the first place. Where there was once a tinge of Taoist philosophy, there is generic faux-Eastern mysticism; in the place of matters of the heart and matters of the sword being shown with equal intensity and importance, we get a far greater interest in the latter than the former; the original had bubbling-under-the-surface feminism, this has empty tokenism. Hell, the developments that are made to try and tie this in as a sequel purely in terms of story end up stabbing some of the most crucial details of the original in the back. And no, I’m not just talking about how the elongated warrior names that the original made fun of are supposed to have honest meaning here. Silent Wolf’s place in the narrative, knowing what his absence meant before, is done in the usual desperately-written way of sequelisation, but it ends up leaving a very sour taste in the mouth. As much as I wish I could enjoy this as its own work, the fact that it keeps trying to be like the original and failing makes that prospect impossible.

All in all, if this didn’t have the Crouching Tiger name attached to it, this probably would have just flown under the radar as a generic straight-to-home-media martial arts flick. But since it does have that name on it, and it does such a piss-poor job of maintaining or even understanding what made that film as good as it was, it fares far worse than it would’ve otherwise. The film itself is honestly a lot like what it keeps insisting is the Green Destiny sword here: Noticeably cheaper, far less care and detail put into its making, and the fact that everyone involved in it keeps trying to insist that it has the same importance as it used to just makes it mean less.

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