Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny full movie review - Fun for a fan of the genre, but lacking the artistic value of the first movie.
If you're looking to enjoy a corny, period-piece kung fu movie that hits the usual notes while offering a few well-choreographed fight scenes in interesting locations, this movie will do just fine.
If, however, you were expecting a worthy sequel to the Oscar-winning Ang Lee film, you'll be disappointed.
The acting?which is actually done in English this time?is generally mediocre, although it's hard separate it from the writing, which forces the characters to spout movie clichés and Confucian truisms. Michelle Yeoh is back to reprise her role, and happily so; she's the best actor in the film, and her character is the only tether to the original story besides the sword of destiny itself. The other players are new, and their characters can be divided into two categories: 1) generic members of a heroic motley crew, and 2) knockoff versions of people in the first film.
In the first category we've got some of the usual suspects coming together to defend the titular sword. Battle-weary middle-aged warrior? Check. Young man who throws knives? Check. Token woman who also throws things? Check. A big strong guy and a self-taught drunken master? Check and Check. Movies that involve assembling a team can be great fun, whether it's The Magnificent Seven or Ocean's Eleven, and sometimes they can even be great cinema, like the original Seven Samurai. But this film does a lazy, perfunctory job of walking you through the steps. The whole crew convenes more-or-less in one place, and they instantly agree to take on the job, almost as if to say "Look, you know the deal right? Do we really have to put any time into it?" We hardly get to know them at all before battles ensue and the credits roll. This is not to say the movie isn't any fun; it's fun, it just isn't particularly good.
In the second category, we have clones of characters from the original film: another thwarted-by-fate love interest for Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), another noble lady with secret sword skills and a criminal past, another young ruffian who acts as a (sort of) love interest for the lady. Aside from the redundancy in storytelling, the problem with treading old ground here is that it makes you sorely miss the acting of Chow Yun-Fat and Zhang Ziyi in the original. His implacable Zen smile and her impetuous, resentful glares reverberated off each other delightfully. Natasha Liu Bordizzo, who plays the distractingly-named "Snow Vase," doesn't quite have that talent. The relationship between Yu Shu Lien and Snow Vase peaked my interest, as did Snow Vase's ultimate backstory, but those moments were all too brief. Meanwhile the main villain is dull dull dull. His sword and chest plate are more interesting than he is, and everything we know about him comes only by word-of-mouth. His sorceress-type confederate, described as "the blind enchantress," offers more mystique, but neither one ends up having the personal significance or the flawed humanity of Jade Fox in Ang Lee's movie. And that hot, bloody memory of desert love that interrupts the main story in the first film? There's no counterpart here; it's only caged flirtation between the young warriors.
Like all great mythical swords, the Green Destiny becomes a character itself, and in spite of everything, the fan in me was happy to see it appear again with jade appointments and calligraphy on the blade. But the sword is relegated to the background; it's just sort of there. It doesn't help Snow Vase achieve discipline; Silent Wolf never illustrates whatever legendary power it has, and so without a reminder from the first film, you're left wondering why everybody is obsessed with the weapon in the first place. Without the Lady of the Lake and its magical scabbard, Excalibur is just a cool name. So it is with Green Destiny in this movie. All of which makes it even harder to justify having this movie be a sequel instead of just churning out a new film.
Gone are the masterful cinematic moments from the original; yes, there are lush landscapes and pretty side-views of caravans trotting through the forest. But these shots owe more to Lord of the Rings than to the first film. (Even one of the most striking fight sequences?a precarious scuffle atop a snow-dusted frozen lake?echoes one of the many endings in the third Hobbit movie.) The battle atop a multi-tiered fortress and the tavern brawl are amusing enough. But there is nothing that tops the hypnotic sway of Li Mu Bai balancing on a bamboo stalk or the fiery endlessness of the desert plateaus that made the first Crouching Tiger more than just an action flick. The soul-aching, mournful violins and the sense of beautiful tragedy in that first film have given way to borderline camp.
So all in all, the whole thing feels like a really well-done, unlicensed fan-sequel. Many lovers of martial arts movies are accustomed to hammy acting and plots defined by tropes, so no doubt many viewers will enjoy Sword of Destiny. But one of the virtues of its predecessor was that it brought a wider audience into the fold. It was a small miracle when the first Crouching Tiger arrived in my little hometown, where even Oscar-winning foreign films don't often make it into local theaters. Even if most of the audience showed up hoping to see Asian people dance-fight in an action flick, they were inadvertently exposed to something more. Something artful. But this sequel, whatever its virtues may be, is just another one of the endless middle-of-the-road options on Netflix.