They’ve borrowed the sword, the floating and Michelle Yeoh, but this is a long way from the great Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In fact, in many ways this is a denial of its predecessor.
Whereas that Ang Lee picture won over global audiences without explicitly catering to them, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny seems to go out of its way to appeal to Western viewers. The actors speak English, the action is at the forefront and computer-generated imagery is used to create easy spectacle. The result is something inertly familiar, with a thin, Syfy-channel sheen. Whereas the original movie shimmered, this has a faux glow.
Set 18 years after the end of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the movie finds Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) once again called upon to protect the legendary sword of the title. This time, a marauding warlord (Jason Scott Lee) plots an attack on the palatial estate where the sword is kept, and where Shu Lien is training a mysterious new student (Natasha Liu Bordizzo).
There are some hopeful moments. During an early attack on her caravan, an overhead shot captures Shu Lien gracefully bursting through the canvas roof (there’s the floating), then twirling so that her translucent robe momentarily captures the sun. And lovely natural settings aren’t entirely missing (just as Crouching Tiger had elements of CGI). Still, when a tactile forest does appear, it mostly serves to remind us of the artificiality of the vast CGI landscapes the movie otherwise employs.
The action sequences in Crouching Tiger were at once clear and enigmatic; here, they’re explained.
As far as the fight sequences are concerned, Sword of Destiny serves as an interesting case study on the difference between choreographing a fight scene and directing it. Yuen Woo-Ping is the director here, after working as action choreographer on the first Crouching Tiger, as well as on The Grandmaster, The Matrix and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films. Although Yuen has directed nearly 30 films, including the entertaining Iron Monkey, it’s revealing to compare the fight scenes in Sword of Destiny with those in Crouching Tiger (it should be noted that the two movies also have different editors). The choreography itself is dazzlingly inventive, but there is something too emphatic about the ways the sequences are filmed and assembled. Intentions are overstated, glances are held a beat too long, pauses take up too much space and slow motion is overly employed. In short, the action sequences in Crouching Tiger were at once clear and enigmatic; here, they’re explained.
The same could be said of the emotional moments, of which there are plenty. Screenwriter John Fusco juggles multiple tragic romances in another faint echo of the first film. Part of the problem is the bland cast — Yeoh seems so lonely without Ziyi Zhang and Yun-Fat Chow, her charismatic co-stars from before — but it also seems to be a matter of direction. Lee brought such delicacy and discretion to each moment in Crouching Tiger that even a relatively minor relationship between a palace guard and an orphaned teenager carried more emotional resonance than the primary love stories do here.
Sword of Destiny ends in a climactic battle that isn’t entirely devoid of interest. I especially liked how Shu Lien, facing off against a supernatural prophetess, uses her hearing to determine which of four approaching apparitions is the actual, physical adversary. Mostly, though, the battle involves frantic cross-cutting among multiple showdowns, many of which appear to be taking place in front of a green screen. By this point, the delicately bending bamboo forest of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon feels very, very far away.