Director: Yuen Woo-ping
Cast: Michelle Yeoh, Donnie Yen, Harry Shum Jr.
Watch Sword of Destiny online in the UK: Netflix
In 2000, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon dazzled audiences around the world. The masterpiece won four Oscars and became the highest-grossing foreign-language film in the US. Over 15 years later, Netflix brings us Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, a clumsy follow-up with none of the first’s subtle emotion or poetic action. Compared to the agile original, this is less a long-awaited cousin and more a decrepit older relative.
It might seem harsh to compare the two directly, but it’s a comparison that the movie invites at every step. Based on the following book in the Iron Crane novels, it once again stars Michelle Yeoh as martial arts legend Yu Shu Lien, the former colleague and lover of Li Mu Bai. With him dead and her still mourning, it’s only a matter of time until someone is once again trying to steal his titular blade (the Green Destiny) from the house of Sir Te – a set piece that almost echoes the original’s opening beat for beat.
The thief in question? Wei-fang (Harry Shum Jr.), who is caught by Yu Shu Lien. Meanwhile, up pops Snow Vase (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), who wants to be mentored and become skilled in martial arts, not unlike Zhang Ziyi in the original. In between cliched training montages, Shu Lien sends out a call for help from other warrior of the Iron Way to help defend the sword. The result? A dust-up in a restaurant that, you guessed it, heavily recalls the inn brawl from 16 years ago.
John Fusco’s script trundles along like that for almost two hours, borrowing themes of pupil and teacher, forbidden romance and revenge. They’re all noble, traditional issues to raise, but they’re ham-fistedly strung together – the movie can never decide whether to show or tell its many back-stories, and so we get a hackneyed combination of the two, as flashbacks pile upon flashbacks, narrated by characters spouting exposition like there’s no tomorrow. The end product feels like a pale imitation of the genre, rather than a substantial or sincere story in its own right. That feeling is only made worse by the bizarre decision to shoot everything in English – so if you choose to watch the film with Chinese audio, you actually end up with a dubbed version.
The movie’s sole saving grace are, perhaps unsurprisingly, the fight sequences – Yuen Woo-ping, the legendary choreographer of the original, has graduated to overall director here. One showdown between Silent Wolf (Donnie Yen) and another warrior, which takes place on a frozen river, is nicely conceived and executed, while Jason Scott Lee’s big bad, the terribly-named Hades Dai, has a lot of fun grimacing and grinning through battles. But even the action feels fake, thanks to an over-reliance on both slow-motion shots (mostly of feet) and CGI – and if the martial arts part of a martial arts movie doesn’t convince, there’s something definitely wrong.
The cast do their best, but Yeoh and Yen are wasted on a poor man’s version of the bond between warriors that gave Lee’s work its melancholic soul. The result is a film that never escapes from the shadow of the original Crouching Tiger, yet oddly never has any sense of continuity with it either. Even worse, there’s no sense of continuity with itself; blind sorceresses, old grudges and token sidekicks come and go with no real conviction, while the flagship stunts are repeatedly underwhelming. With no visual, dramatic or emotional coherence, you’re left with a sequel that desperately strives to echo the first film’s masterful maturity, but winds up flat and dull. They might as well have called it Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Density.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.