'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny': Film Review

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon 2 still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy Pegasus Pictures
An exemplar of cynical product creation.

Action maestro Yuen Woo-ping teams up with Donnie Yen and Michelle Yeoh for a follow-up to Ang Lee’s 2000 Oscar winner.

Taking a page from the cynical Hollywood book that hoists sequels no one wants (Terminator Salvation, Grown Ups 2) onto moviegoers, The Weinstein Company teams up with China Film Group, China’s biggest producer, for a continuation of the saga started in 2000's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It’s never a good sign when exhibitor chains and distributors make it difficult to find a movie, or better yet cancel early (paid) preview screenings, and so the harbingers for action director and choreographer-turned-filmmaker Yuen Woo-ping’s sequel to Ang Lee’s Oscar-winner are ominous to say the least. Set for wide release in Hong Kong and China a week before its Netflix premiere and limited theatrical screenings in the U.S. at the end of February, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny seems primed to be greeted with broad indifference. Polished production and a fairly strong curiosity factor should earn the film minor box-office success in its “home” markets, but beyond that its status as a weak sequel to a niche film (regardless of a $200 million haul worldwide) will make for a stronger Netflix draw than a theatrical one.

Set roughly 20 years after everyone dies or retires to seclusion at the end of the first film, Sword of Destiny picks up with a warlord, Hades Dai (Jason Scott Lee, still best known for Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story), rampaging in Middle Earth, er, western China, looking for the legendary sword, the Green Destiny. Kept safe in the city by her now-deceased former master Te, Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) learns of the threat and calls upon her Iron Way brethren to help protect it. Among them is Silent Wolf (Donnie Yen), a reticent warrior type from Shu Lien’s past and who was a competitor for her affection with Li Mu Bai.

Even with Yuen valiantly channeling (or straight-up imitating) Ang Lee’s stylistic flourishes from the original, there’s little in John Fusco’s (Marco Polo, Hidalgo) screenplay for him, or anyone, to latch onto and run with. The emotional connective tissue that made Lee’s film so poetic, romantic, tragic and thrilling is missing here, reducing Sword of Destiny to a series of loosely related fight sequences and gauzy, overwrought flashbacks. Kicking off with a long-winded info dump doesn’t help in introducing the new story or players, either. As Shu Lien travels to Te’s memorial service, Dai’s bandits attack her carriage and she gets her first glimpse of Wei-fang (Harry Shum, Jr.), a young acolyte charged with finding the weapon for Dai. After breaking into the city and the chamber the Green Destiny rests in later on (cue the silent rooftop parkour), he’s foiled, initially, by Snow Vase (newcomer Natasha Liu Bordizzo). They fight, he’s jailed and she starts training with Shu Lien and bantering with Wei-fang, which makes them the second “romantic” pair.

The new generation is appealing enough, if bland, regardless of the dearth of material to sink their teeth into. These are archetypes rather than fully reailzed characters. Neither Liu Bordizzo nor Shum can do much with their ingénue character (they both play a spin on the woman at a crossroads that made Zhang Ziyi a star in 2000) and so float from fight set-piece to set-piece without leaving a lasting impression. Yen looks bored at best, and Lee is no better than a sketch of a villain. Yeoh fares best among the cast, but she also has the benefit of playing a character viewers are familiar with; she doesn’t have to work that hard to recreate Shu Lien. All are asked to repeat the same platitudes about honor and duty, and appear exhausted for it.

Less actively bad than it is plodding, Sword of Destiny is nearly 100 percent free of cast chemistry (Yeoh and Yen are particularly awkward) and relies heavily on well-worn plot beats and recurring motifs. Really, how many times can the male-female warrior couple back up to each other in a scrum and unleash the mutual encouraging nod? (Answer: many.) Shot in New Zealand, Grant Major's (Whale Rider, Heavenly Creatures) production design, Newton Thomas Sigel’s (Drive, X-Men: Days of Future Past) photography and visual effects by Mark Stetson (The Grey, The Lord of the Rings) are all top-notch, if not intensely innovative. The film does have a few memorable set-pieces, chiefly one on a frozen lake, but in general the action and martial choreography comes off as pedestrian — a fatal error in a wuxia film.

Above all, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny is product rather than a film — an unnecessary sequel 15 years after the fact that’s attempting to cash in on a respected property in a reformed media age. If nothing else, the sheer volume of social media “partners” and managers (evidenced by the protracted end credit roll that puffs up the film’s running time by well over five minutes) indicate an entirely inorganic marketing strategy at work. And screening in a spoken Cantonese (in Hong Kong, Putonghua in China) dub rather than in its original English can’t help, either. Bad dubbing is distracting in any language. Sword of Destiny feels like Wong Kar-wai's Grandmaster in that it seems incomplete, like there's a longer, better film in an editing room somewhere just waiting for Blu-ray. A missed opportunity given the talent in front of and behind the camera, it begs the question of what they could have achieved if everyone aimed for originality.

Distributor: Netflix, The Weinstein Company
Production companies:
China Film Group, Pegasus Taihe Entertainment, The Weinstein Company, Yucaipa Films
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 Quon
Director: Yuen Woo-ping
Screenwriter: John Fusco, based on the book by Wang Dulu
Producers: Charlie Nguyen, Peter Berg
Executive producers: La Peikang, Jay Sun, Morten Tyldum, Ron Burke, Ted Sarandos, Pauline Fischer, Sarah Bowen, Bob Weinstein, Anthony W.F. Wong, David C. Glasser, Sarah Aubrey, Ralph Winter, David Thwaites, Jeff Betancourt
Director of photography: Newton Thomas Sigel
Production designer: Grant Major
Costume designer: Ngila Dickson
Editor: Jeff Betancourt
Music: Shigeru Umebayashi
Casting: Mary Vernieu, Marisol Roncali, Tina Cleary, Miranda Rivers
World sales: The Weinstein Company

Rated PG-13, 102 minutes