Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is as lyrical and moving as Wuxia epics (Chinese tales of ancient martial arts and magic) get, and was a rare crossover hit back in 2000. With masterful enchanting wirework martial arts choreographed with balletic intensity, combatants’ limbs moved so deftly and precisely they lifted off the ground, lighter than air. In moving flashbacks and smartly structured narrative, the storytelling took on sweeping scope and lush romanticism. What a lovely movie. But, alas, it set the bar too high for a sequel to clear, especially one arriving sixteen years later done on the cheap with almost none of the cast and crew returning. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny is a cash-grab on the part of the producers and studios who owned the rights to a title with some name recognition. But maybe it’s a tad unfair to compare it too closely to its predecessor. Is it a good Wuxia film on its own terms? Not especially. It’s so unmemorable, I found it slipping out of my mind on a scene-by-scene basis.
Director Yuen Woo-Ping, action choreographer for the original, and a decent action filmmaker in his own right (he helmed Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master and the fun Iron Monkey), and screenwriter John Fusco (Hidalgo – remember that?) proceed to make a film full of decisions that strip its world of magic and majesty. It’s in English. It’s shot flatly by generally reliable Newton Thomas Sigel (Bryan Singer's usual cinematographer) in sets and on locations flooded with bright light. It’s loaded up with conspicuously computer generated establishing shots. Scenes play out in textureless medium shots and rote shot/reverse shot, erupting in action framed in expressionless utilitarian coverage. Where’s the lyricism of the original, or the energetic excitement of a typical Yuen Woo-Ping production? Every indication points to a movie done quickly and cheaply, governed largely by business decisions and other bland-making forces. The result is a generic Wuxia knockoff that’s somehow roped in some genuine talent. It’s as weightless as its fighters’ feet.
The plot focuses once again on the legendary sword Green Destiny, which is clearly destined to be an eternally coveted MacGuffin. The great Michelle Yeoh – always a welcome sight, compelling and dignified, even in this dull claptrap – is the only returning cast member, playing Yu Shu Lien, a humble master swordswoman who is dragged into conflict over the weapon. A snarling bad guy (Jason Scott Lee) wants it. He sends a bunch of warriors (including Glee’s Harry Shum Jr.) after it. Others – like a woman named Snow Vase (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) and a man named Silent Wolf (Donnie Yen) – want to protect it. There’s the story. Fusco’s script spins its wheels on overlong and underdeveloped characterization and backstory, somehow stretching the whole thing out to a mere 89 minutes before collapsing into the end credits. (It somehow feels twice as long.) He provides tedious connective tissue between bouts of combat in a handful of locales, none as striking or memorable as the rooftops or treetops of the original.
While it’s nobody’s best work, it has its moments. A few sequences – like a Donnie Yen-centric brawl or a quiet fight in a room full of vases where the characters are carefully trying not to break anything – feature enough fancy footwork and clever choreography to rise to the level of mildly diverting. But these are surrounded by so little of interest, with a plodding plot achingly predictable filled in with formulaic motivations and sparsely decorated and populated sets. There’s an overwhelming sense that the bare minimum is on display. And that’s too bad, because this is a film built off an all-time classic, and filled with a talented cast of people woefully underrepresented in Hollywood productions. There’s not a white face in sight, and many fighters here are cool women slicing and floating through combat. It’s disappointing they’re stuck in a movie so flat and empty, lacking even a hint of the pulse or poetry it deserves.