Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is one of those few movies I can describe as being truly exhilarating. It combined amazing martial arts sequences with a great story filled with compelling characters you were eager to follow along with from start to finish. To simply call it a martial arts movie was not fair as Lee gleefully subverted the genre to give us something completely mesmerizing, and it went on to become one of the most successful foreign films ever made.
So it’s a shame to see its eagerly awaited sequel, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny” doesn’t come even close to recapturing the spirit of the original. Michelle Yeoh returns as Yu Shu Lien and Yuen Woo-ping, who choreographed the action of the original, steps in as director, but those who loved the original are bound to feel like something is missing. While Woo-ping still delivers some amazing action scenes, he lacks Lee’s poetic touch.
“Sword of Destiny’s” greatest strength is definitely Yeoh who looks fantastic at 53 years old and can still kick ass and do her own stunts like nobody else’s business. She is the only cast member from the original to appear in this sequel, and she makes it almost worth a recommendation as her performance is as powerful and heartfelt as it was before.
The movie takes place 18 years after the events of the original and sees Yu Shu Lien coming out of solitude and heading back to Peking where her lover Li Mui Bai’s legendary sword, the Green Destiny, is being held. However, it doesn’t take long for her to encounter resistance as her carriage is attacked by several warriors. In the time she was away, various clans have wreaked havoc in the martial world in an effort to gain control of it, and many have their eye on stealing the Green Destiny which will allow them to rule it with unimpeachable power.
The Green Destiny was a major focal point of the original as Jen Lu (Zhang Ziyi) stole it in an attempt to engage in the warrior lifestyle she had become envious of. That sword is a focal point in the sequel as well to where I began to wonder if perhaps destroying it instead of keeping it safe and locked up would have made more sense. It certainly would have saved the martial world a lot of trouble. Then again, destroying that sword would also have meant destroying the past, so perhaps that’s why the characters are not eager to obliterate it even for their own safety.
We get a lot of characters thrown at us this time around like Wei-Fang (Harry Shum, Jr.) and Snow Vase (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), both of whom want the sword for their own purposes. There’s also Silent Wolf (Donnie Yen) who faked his own death because he was in love with Yu Shu Lien and preferred a life of solitude as he knew Li Mu Bai was the one she loved more. And then we have Hades Dai (Jason Scott Lee), the West Lotus warlord who learns he must obtain the Green Destiny as it will allow him to rule the Martial World.
With all these characters and their various plot threads, it’s hard to get involved in their individual dramas and they are nowhere as compelling as the ones from the original. Many of the characters we see here feel like typical kind martial arts movies tend rely on. Snow Vase in particular feels like a generic version of Jen Lu, and the latter only appears a footnote in this sequel. They all fight like the best warriors, but the action feels ordinary and less than thrilling because we don’t care that much for them.
Another thing about “Sword of Destiny” is the actors speak in English instead of Mandarin, and this proves to be a big mistake. While there are many who can’t stand subtitles, seeing the dialogue spoken in English makes it seem all the more clichéd and uninspired. It’s like watching the original “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” dubbed in English; it’s still cool to watch, but everything sounds rather laughable in another language. In Mandarin, there was at least a beauty to the words they otherwise would not have had.
But perhaps “Sword of Destiny’s” biggest sin is its overall look. While the original only used CGI effects to remove the wires which helped the actors to fly all over the place, this movie looks like it bathed in them. As a result, everything looks artificial to where “Sword of Destiny” has the appearance of a video game, and not a very good one at that. In fact, the movie at times looks quite ugly because you can easily tell that what’s on the screen is not at all real. While Lee made collapsing buildings look exciting, Woo-ping is not able to recapture that magic as scenes of warriors crashing through floors of a tower looks inescapably fake and all done on a computer.
Coming out of this sequel, I wondered if “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” even needed one. The stories of both movies connect, but this one looks like it exists on a different planet. Time will only tell if there is to be a “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 3,” but “Sword of Destiny” doesn’t make much of a case for one. Yeoh is great as always and Woo-ping does pull off some nice stunts, but this sequel feels uninspired and routine at best. Perhaps it’s time for the Green Destiny to be laid to rest once and for all. Just look at what Harry Potter did with the Elder Wand in the “Deathly Hallows;” problems were solved and the wizarding world was balanced out. It’s that simple.
Copyright Ben Kenber 2016