If you had a friend to whom you wanted to show a martial arts or a wuxia film or heck, even just a Chinese film, you could surely do far worse than Ang Lee’s timeless classic “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”. Sixteen years hence, it’s just as breathtaking and entrancing as ever, so creating a worthy successor was never going to be a breeze. So, does that follow-up, “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny” pull it off? Well, like so many ‘relationship statuses’ on social media read, the short answer is, it’s complicated.
Asia’s reigning king of action, Donnie Yen, steps into the role of swordsman Meng Sizhao aka Silent Wolf, who we learn has a special connection to the heroine of the original film, Yu Shu Lien, played once again by Michelle Yeoh, who it must be said, looks as though she hasn’t aged a day in the last sixteen years. Harry Shum Jr., who continues to bear a striking resemblance to Iko Uwais, portrays the young thief Wei Fang while Natasha Liu Bordizzo plays Snow Vase, who becomes Yu Shi Lien’s devoted apprentice. Vietnamese pop-star Veronica Ngo of “The Rebel” fame plays the deadly assassin Mantis, loyal follower to the villain of the film, the treacherous warlord Hades Dai, played by Jason Scott Lee.
The legendary swordswoman Yu Shu Lien emerges after years of isolation to journey to Peking, where the Green Destiny, the famed sword of her deceased lover and renowned warrior Li Mu Bai, is kept. She quickly learns that the sword is coveted by China’s most feared warlord, Hades Dai, leader of the West Lotus clan.
Determined to keep the Green Destiny safe, Shu Lien finds a new ally in a young woman named Snow Vase, whom she agrees to take on as her student, while Snow Vase finds herself falling in love with Wei Fang, a captive thief in Hades’ employ who had previously attempted to steal the sword. As Hades redoubles his efforts to claim the Green Destiny, Shu Lien finds further assistance from her former lover Silent Wolf, who brings with him a cadre of warriors to fend off their enemy.
Let’s start with the most noticeable difference to the original – “Sword of Destiny” was filmed and released in English. To be fair, Netflix does also include the Mandarin dub for the purists among us, and the fact that it is a Chinese-American co-production doesn’t exactly make the choice to go out in English totally blasphemous. Still, it’s a decision that’s impossible to ignore and something that’s hard not to feel a little jarred by. It ultimately comes down to personal taste and it’s not really a deal breaker for me personally -actually looking at it from the right angle, it’s even a little ironic that linguistics continues to be the Achilles’ Heel of “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”.
If you’re someone who values quantity on the same level as quality, you’ll surely be delighted to hear that “Sword of Destiny” is approximately ninety percent action and something that sets it apart from its predecessor and most wuxia films, is that it places a much greater emphasis on fist and foot combat. Whereas the original was primarily a blade-driven affair with the initial duel between Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi being the only major unarmed battle, about a third of the fight choreography in “Sword of Destiny” relies exclusively on the human body, and most of it is pretty decent overall. However, that’s where the comparisons with the original start to favour Ang Lee.
There isn’t a single action scene in “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” that isn’t memorable in its own unique way, whether it’s the rooftop fight, the teahouse brawl, or Yeoh and Zhang’s rematch in the hall of weapons. For the sheer volume of non-stop action that makes up the bulk of the film, “Sword of Destiny”, for the most part, feels surprisingly average whenever the swords clash.
Sure, there’s a few exceptions here and there, such as when Silent Wolf and Wei Fang face off on a frozen lake, and the training scenes with Snow Vase under Shu Lien, whose methods include having her new apprentice attempt to put a twig through the center of a small ring swinging back and forth on the edge of a string. These are exactly the sort of things that made the whole world fall in love with “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” some sixteen years ago, and whenever they happen in “Sword of Destiny”, they’re exactly the kind of poetry in motion that they need to be. The problem is that there just aren’t enough of them and just how standard so much of the rest of the film feels by comparison.
This brings us at last to the finale, where our heroes face off with the West Lotus while Silent Wolf duels with Hades Dai. I probably don’t need to remind anyone of what Donnie Yen and Jason Scott Lee’s respective signature roles are, but Jesus! do they both give it everything they’ve got and then some! But, for whatever reason, it ultimately feels like just another sword fight between two skilled warriors when all is said and done (to say nothing of how much the camera cuts away from what should be the main event to the battle Silent Wolf’s allies are currently fighting). Donnie Yen vs Jason Scott Lee should’ve been one for the history books, the closest we’ll ever likely get to seeing Ip Man vs Bruce Lee, and like so much of the rest of “Sword of Destiny”, it’s just okay.
To be perfectly clear, “Sword of Destiny” is hardly a ‘bad’ movie. It’s a perfectly serviceable hour-and-a-half of largely non-stop action, and no martial arts film with Yuen Woo-ping attached to it could ever be altogether bad. The training scenes and the lake battle completely capture the magic of the original, and the rest of the film is a genuinely decent wuxia flick, but just decent. Let’s hope that a rematch for Donnie and Jason is on the cards in the near future.
- Harry Shum Jr. previously portrayed Kuai Liang, the younger brother of Sub-Zero, in the second season of “Mortal Kombat: Legacy”.
- Screenwriter John Fusco, himself a martial arts practitioner, also served as screenwriter for “The Forbidden Kingdom” and created the Netflix series “Marco Polo”.
- The film was originally set to be released on August 28th, 2015, on both Netflix and in select IMAX theaters. However, several theater chains, among them Regal Entertainment Group, AMC, Carmike Cinemas, Cinemark Theaters, and Cineworld subsequently announced they would not screen the film in their theaters as a result of the Netflix deal. Ultimately, the release date was pushed back to February 26th, 2016, with 10-15 American IMAX screens agreeing to screen the film.