Making a sequel to Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon always seemed both natural and foolish, audacious and misguided. The 2001 film was adapted from one in a series of novels by Wang Du Lu, thus lending itself naturally to follow-ups; but it was so acclaimed that it made for a tough act to follow. There was then a interesting challenge to shooting a second film, but at the same time the absence of Ang Lee or someone with a similarly strong vision at the helm did not bode well, Yuen Woo Ping having always been hit-and-miss as a director. The film’s production was troubled, its release pattern controversial (it premiered on Netflix in the West, prompting many IMAX chains to refuse to screen it in the US), and its English soundtrack head-scratching. But those factors weren’t in and of themselves indicative of failure, especially with so much talent behind and in front of the camera.
Many years after the events of the first film, the world of martial arts is under threat from the cruel Hades Dai (Jason Scott Lee), who coverts the powerful sword known as Green Destiny. Counselled by a mysterious blind enchantress (Eugenia Yuan), he sends Tiefang (Harry Shum Jr.), a young follower eager to prove his mettle, to steal the sword in the house of Te where it is kept. At the same time, a world-weary Yu Shulien (Michelle Yeoh) returns to that house to pay her respects to its deceased master. There she meets Snow Vase (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), a talented but impetuous young woman who f asks her to be her teacher after foiling Tiefang’s attempt to steal the sword. But Yu Shulien also meets Silent Wolf (Donnie Yen), a man to whom she was once betrothed, before he supposedly died in a duel with Hades Dai. As Snow Vase begins to show interest in Tiefang, and Yu Shulien’s heart is gradually thawed by the man she thought dead, assassins and swordsmen converge towards the Sword of Destiny.
To its credit, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (henceforward Sword of Destiny) doesn’t try to be the same kind of film as its illustrious predecessor. Powered by a large-scale threat rather than by conflicted feelings and inner turmoil, it is a pulpier, lighter film that allows for more obvious supernatural elements (like a prescient enchantress who can alter perception), more varied weaponry (steel claws, tridents…) and even occasional comedic overtones whether in the fighting or in bouts of manly or flirtatious banter. But it’s nevertheless a mostly unsatisfying sequel. John Fusco, who wrote such a fun amalgamation of Chinese myths in The Forbidden Kingdom, here stumbles badly with a pedestrian script that is propelled by a generic threat, populated by mostly one-dimensional characters, and supported by a barrage of explanatory flashbacks. The film earns none of its supposed dramatic payoffs, because its progression is so mechanical and above all, perfunctory: 90 minutes have elapsed when the credits roll. The fact that the film was shot in English is jarring indeed, but it would easily have been forgiven if the dialogue wasn’t so thudding, each line a trailer-ready exposition of plot, motivation or message.
Even more disappointingly, the action is mostly forgettable, a crying shame considering this film reunites three of the most prestigious names in martial arts cinema – Yuen Woo Ping, Michelle Yeoh and Donnie Yen – not to mention a wealth of talented screen fighters in supporting roles. Often awkwardly edited, featuring jerky wirework, and sometimes marred by ugly green-screen work, the fights are plentiful but none stick in the head or quicken the pulse. At best they’re serviceable, like a fight on a frozen lake or a brisk inn fight that borrows the “kicking-while-sitting” stance from 1994’s Wing Chun, but at worst they’re a jumble of flailing swords and slow-motion jumps. The landscapes of New Zealand are gorgeous as ever, but the sets are filmed in a weird, cheap-looking soft hue.
The ever-charismatic, ever-beautiful, ever-affecting Michelle Yeoh anchors the film as best she can, but her character has been gutted of its subtlety and turned into a stately cardboard-cutout. She shares with the great Donnie Yen an innate chemistry, on which the film never manages to build in the least. Similarly, Natasha Liu Bordizzo and Harry Shum Jr. have charm to spare, but are given only a vague sketch of a relationship to work with. A wealth of interesting supporting characters are wasted, including Roger Yuan, Veronica Ngo, Juju Chan, Chris Pang, Darryl Quon and Park Woon Young, all of whom cut interesting figures and have great moves, but are saddled with stock swordsmen or henchmen roles. The excellent Eugenia Yuan, daughter of Cheng Pei Pei who played the villain in the first film, is a sight to behold as the blind enchantress and makes for an intriguing villainous double-act with a reptilian and imposing Jason Scott Lee but they, too, are reduced to pantomime by the sagging direction and bloodless script.
Long Story Short: While reasonably entertaining and basically competent, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny is a waste of talent with a mechanical plot, forgettable action and a disheartening lack of epic sweep or affecting drama. **