Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword Of Destiny
Here was something that I have been patiently awaiting for some time, until it finally came up on Netflix. It is fair to say that I was as enraptured as most people with Ang Lee’s stunning 2000 offering, that has rightfully staked a claim to being the most influential eastern-made film of all time. There was something altogether captivating about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with its simple story, fine performances and unique martial arts set-pieces, that treaded the fine line between kinetic action and wire-based wizardry.
A sequel, somewhat loosely based on another book in the little known Crane-Iron series, was always going to be a project to attract a lot of interest, but so far gone from the first, and with a different director at the helm, could Sword Of Destiny actually hold itself worthy to be in the same room as its progenitor?
Warlord Hades Dei (Jason Scott Lee) and his deadly West Lotus clan seek the legendary Green Destiny Sword in their bid to rule the world. But standing between him and the sword are numerous heroes: the renowned Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), conflicted Lotus protégé Wei-Fang (Harry Shum Jr), the young Snow Vase (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) and the mysterious Silent Wolf (Donnie Yen). Together, they must find a way to stand against Dei and his growing evil.
To say that Sword Of Destiny is a disappointment would be a gross understatement. From the moment it began to the moment the credits rolled, I couldn’t help but stare at the screen in the manner that one sometimes stares at a terrible car accident. And it isn’t because it is an inherently bad film: indeed, taken purely on its own merits, this is just a humdrum martial arts movie that would be forgotten very quickly if it didn’t have the famous title attached to it.
No, it’s because Sword Of Destiny is a total betrayal of Ang Lee’s film, in its very make-up. I might have disagreed with Rotten Tomatoes a fair bit recently, but 15% is something I would actually deem generous. This is a film that I have trouble even mustering the enthusiasm to review, hence the length of time between its release and posting this.
Before you get on to anything else, it’s the words people are saying that will first cause your eyebrows to raise. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had both a fine dub and fine subtitles, that captured everything being said by the characters. Here, director Yuen Woo-ping and writer John Fusco have apparently decided – or, I hope, had the decision thrust upon them – that this key effort to ingrain eastern culture into the film has to be cast aside, and so the characters speak English. This in itself is bad enough, but much of the cast is not as well versed in the language as they would need to be in order for it to work: stuttered delivery, in many cases done with very little enthusiasm, is the tone of the day, and Sword Of Destiny is far worse for it.
The least enthusiasm comes from Michelle Yeoh, the actress tasked with providing the clear link between this and the first film. But her performance is so lackadaisical, so fraught with a certain mundanity, that it seems to me as if Yeoh checked out of this film moments after the camera first started rolling, doing all that she could to make sure that it would sink to the bottom of viewers’ memory. It can’t all be put down to the language thing, I’ve seen Yeoh give good performances in English. No, she just didn’t care, and it’s as obvious as it could be, in literally every single scene that she’s in.
So, an inherently problematic issue with the language choice and a lead that’s as bad as she could have been. What can save Sword Of Destiny? Not it’s script, a blunt affair as you might expect from the man behind Netflix’s inherently infantile (albeit sometimes entertaining) Game Of Thrones rip-off Marco Polo. Not it’s story, which is a totally humdrum Seven Samurai affair, as a party of differing, but basically decent, people rally around to defend an objective and ward off the comically portrayed bad guy, Scott Lee stuck with the ridiculously named Hades Dei, perhaps wondering what he’s done to deserve such a nothing role. Our Magnificent Seven stand-ins all have their thing, and barring a somewhat amusing tavern scene when they are brought together for the first time, attempts to ingratiate them with the audience through numerous moments of “banter” fall very flat.
The three most important are Wolf, Feng and Vase. Yen, as Wolf, is probably the best actor in the production, but that might be because he seems built to be the strong, mostly silent type. The attempted romance plot with Lien, calling back to some background details from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is a dud, plain and simple, but Yen at least manages to be a bit of a martial arts movie action hero at other times. Shum Jr and Bordizzo form the central part of the rest of the plot, but that’s just a tired romantic story-line that seems like it is trying to ape the Jen/Lo sub-plot of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, without understanding just what made that so great in the first place.
The contrast between what I presume is the primary pairing – Lien and Wolf – with the younger one is a blatant attempt to re-do one of the core things that elevated Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon into the stratosphere, but in Sword Of Destiny it just feels like a very cheap and very unpalatable re-creation of something that should have been best left alone. These characters needed to stand out in a different way, but Sword Of Destiny will not allow them to.
And up pop numerous adversaries for them all to face off with individually in the third act, be they a scary witch or something equally as brainless. Cluttered to the point of stupidity, with complex backstories thrown in way too late for them to make much sense, no one really has enough time to breath properly in Sword Of Destiny, and as a result the audience is unlikely to really care all that much about any of their fates.
Things trip along here without much to differentiate it from the most bog-standard competitor in the wuxia genre, and long before we head to the inevitable finale clash of good vs evil you will be rolling your eyes at the simplicity of it all. While New Zealand looks great in the oft over-used background and establishing shots, you’d think someone might have warned the editor that it might make the viewer think of a much better film that they would prefer to be watching at that moment. I don’t know if Peter Jackson has ruined New Zealand for filmmakers with his masterful use of the country, but Sword Of Destiny certainly seems to indicate he might have.
You’d need decent fight scenes to do anything to save Sword Of Destiny, but even here things are all a bit misplaced: in line with a more general western style cinematography, the director opts for western-style action sequences, with tight up shots, rapid cutting around the punch and stylized special effects. And that’s stunning, considering that he was intimately involved in the first films fight sequences, and should have known better. It’s hard to make heads or tails of it: Yuen has done better work on western franchise like The Matrix or Kill Bill, but seems to have regressed.
On a few occasions, Sword Of Destiny approaches the level of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon when it comes to the martial arts, most notably in a contest between Feng and Vase over the titular sword, when they must grapple and strike in the dead of night without making any noise. There was an intimacy and an ingenuity in that sequence that was not repeated elsewhere, when it all became very so-so: not even a late moonlit sequence on a frozen lake could not really engage me, so poorly done was the special effects and the backgrounds. The fight scenes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were a great accompaniment, not an end in themselves: here, they feel like the entire point.
I have little else to really say, so deadened was I by this film, that failed that neither entertained nor engaged me in any way. This is a film that I really, really wanted to like, but there was just precious little there to actually get in any way excited by. It seemed to me as if Netflix jumped the gun acquiring the rights for a sequel without fully considering whether it should be done, making this film the most cynical kind of cash-grab. Absent so many of the elements that meant Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon would be an unlikely worldwide hit, not least its director and a more competent Michelle Yeoh, Sword Of Destiny just stumbles towards the finish line, poor in nearly every facet, as if the production team realised very early on what they were working with and decided that giving a full effort was pointless. I don’t recommend this. Go and watch the first one instead.
(All images are copyright of Netflix and The Weinstein Company).