I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny

Okay, so admittedly it’s weird that 17 years after the acclaimed, Academy Award winning CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, The Weinstein Company up and made a sequel without the original director. And filmed it in English. And sold it to Netflix so it was barely released in theaters and may never be available on disc in most countries. It’s not surprising that people seem to have been disappointed, or just confused, or completely unaware of it. But if we think of it in terms of unlikely DTV sequels, CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON: SWORD OF DESTINY is in the upper echelon.

No, the director is not Ang Lee, but it’s not nobody either – it’s Yuen Woo-Ping, whose choreography was the life’s blood of the first film. I wouldn’t say he tops it here, but he brings more graceful glides, spinning swords and nimble roof top skips and hops. It’s worth noting that today’s technology is used to create more elaborate magical realism, like when the two leads ride in on horses, block a barrage of spears, leap high into the air, land and begin a sword fight, all in one beautiful shot.

I love how detailed his style is in its use of the different senses, especially the aural. The sounds of wood clanking and crunching, metal clanging and vibrating, vases cracking, bricks crumbling, swords dragging across dirt or stone, and of course wind whooshing are as intoxicating as the movements themselves. Extra credit to the part where the character Silent Wolf (more on him later) hops around landing on people’s feet, crunching and hobbling six guys in a row.

My favorite fight is probly the huge outdoor bar brawl which includes, among other things, a cook (Xiaofei Zhou I think?) fighting off a guy with two ladles and then using one to dump hot soup and noodles on him. I’d say the most innovative fight, though, is the one that takes place on a frozen (and cracking) lake. The surroundings are clearly artificial, but it sure looks like the combatants are really sliding around on ice. Hockey rink, maybe?

If you remember the end of the original, Chow Yun Fat’s Li Mu Bai had been fatally poisoned, and Zhing Ziyi’s Jen had leapt off of Wudan Mountain either as suicide or to fly away like a magical squirrel or something. (I lean toward the latter.) SWORD OF DESTINY doesn’t violate either of those things, so the returning stars are Michelle Yeoh as Yu Shu Lien and the Green Destiny Sword as itself.

Yeoh is the lead, and her soothing narration makes the bizarre choice to do this in English much more palatable. Eighteen years after Li Mu Bai’s death she still mourns him, walking out to the edge of a cliff to think about him. “Followers of the Iron Way have become few and far between,” she says, while “The Martial World” is divided into warring tribes. Sir Te, her father figure who has kept the Green Destiny sword safe, has died, so Lu Shien travels to pay her respects to his son (Gary Young).

Good timing, because this asshole called Hades Dai of the West Lotus (a burly Jason Scott Lee [DRAGON: THE BRUCE LEE STORY] – another good trade for the English dialogue) has just learned the location of the sword from a blind enchantress (Eugenia Yuan, THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS 2). This is a guy who already uses a scary curved and serrated blade with a sculpted dragon hilt and sheath, so his interest is a testament to Green Destiny’s street rep.

Just as in part 1, a young masked fighter sneaks in at night to steal the sword from the Te residence, but this time it’s a boy, Wei-Fang (Harry Shum, Jr., STEP UP 23), and he’s stopped by a girl named Snow Vase (newcomer Natasha Liu Bordizzo) who (like part 1’s Jen) is a pretty heiress by day, elite asskicker by night. Shu Lien decides the best thing to do is put the boy in a cage and train the girl in the Iron Way. She reads her fighting style, suspects who taught it to her, and believes she can learn from her.

So there’s at least one beloved martial arts movie trope that’s not really in part 1: training. Shu Lien gets to offer her student wise metaphors (“True skill is not a blazing flame”) and make her stand in a cool pose with a teapot balanced on her foot and time herself by the shadow from a stick. Cool shit like that. She makes her use a willow branch to stab the hole in the center of a coin on a string. Then she gives her a real sword and defeats her using the branch.

The cinematographer is Newton Thomas Siegel (THREE KINGS, Bryan Singer’s movies, DRIVE) and the look is very different from what Lee and Peter Pau established. It’s much more of a modern, digitally enhanced martial arts epic. I think the often-times colorful look fits the material, and there’s a good variety to it – desaturation for the West Lotus, plenty of yellow tinting and orange light against blue backgrounds, also green and blue for the ice scene, and I especially like the picturesque area she lives in during peace time, with its exaggeratedly green grass, like a fantasy land.

Look how beautiful this is! Like a painting for a fantasy calendar. Even the horse looks a little too good to be true.

Now, you remember in the first one, the reason Li Mu Bai had never confessed his love to Shu Lien was that she had been engaged to his late best friend? Well, holy shit, that was Donnie Yen they were talking about! And he actually didn’t die, he just got pushed off of Vulture’s Peak in a duel with Hades Dai and decided to play along with being dead and go practice alone on a mountain. Not a mountain with a temple, just a mountain where all the local birds and bears and shit are gonna be going “What the fuck is up with this guy?” He spends his days swinging swords, finding enlightenment, feeling sorry for himself and staying out of the way so Shu Lien can be happier with her obvious true love, Li Mu Bai.

But now he has returned as the mercenary Silent Wolf, leading a crew who are hired to guard the sword. When Shu Lien finds out that he’s alive she rightfully scolds him for the dramatic gesture that didn’t even work – Li Mu Bai never got with her because he thought it would be dishonorable to marry the love of his dead friend! “You feigned your death for nothing.” But she also respects his skill, so she allows him to stay on a strictly professional level.

Silent Wolf’s elite team, recruited when they help him in that great bar brawl scene I mentioned, are very likable. They have cool gimmick-describing names like Flying Blade (Chris Pang, I, FRANKENSTEIN) and Silver Dart Shi (JuJu Chan, SAVAGE DOG). Thunder Fist Chan (Woon Young Park, THE SHADOW) has metal tubing on his arms and fights with an appropriately sledge hammery style. Turtle Ma (Darryl Quon, FUTURESPORT) carries a shield on his back like a shell. He takes the job for the wine and luckily is one of those loving/lovable drunks.

Some of their foes include Mantis (Veronica Ngo, STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI) and Iron Crow (Roger Yuan, AMERICAN KICKBOXER 1, LETHAL WEAPON 4, the Fiendish Dr. Wu in BLACK DYNAMITE), so even if this lacks the emotional depth of an Ang Lee film, it does have the colorful mythology of a RZA picture, with superior action filmatism.

This saga started out as a series of books (not available in English) known as The Crane-Iron Pentalogy by Wang Dulu. CROUCHING TIGER was actually the fourth book, and this one is partly based on the fifth, Iron Knight, Silver Vase (though judging from a summary on Michelle Yeoh’s websight the book does not deal with Yu Shu Lien and Silent Wolf – only the secondary characters). The screenplay is by John Fusco, the guy that wrote YOUNG GUNS and SPIRIT: STALLION OF THE CIMARRON. I guess it’s more relevant that he wrote THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM, but I haven’t seen that one yet.

Like the original, this is a melodrama about people struggling with past traumas and deep regrets. Poor Shu Lien is still mourning Li Mu Bai and the Tes and now is being tormented by the opposite, that her old love is actually not dead. Silent Wolf knows he fucked up and can’t erase it. Even the long deceased Li Mu Bai’s past is causing trouble. The sword he hung up is causing bloodshed just by existing, and the blind enchantress is out for vengeance because he apparently killed her parents.

Snow Vase, just from seeing Hung Fei’s birthmark during a sword fight, knows a secret about his past that he doesn’t, and she’s trying to avenge something that happened to her teacher. Shu Lien asks her to let go of her past, but has trouble doing it herself. Once again she concerns herself with teaching a young person whose path is not yet set to avoid the mistakes she made.

I’ve watched this twice now and I think it’s a good one. In the end (SPOILER), Hades Dai gets his hands on the Green Destiny and Silent Wolf still runs him through with his dragon sword. R.I.P. the legend of nobody ever being defeated in a duel while holding the Green Destiny. With his last breath, Hades Dai observes, “We don’t hold the sword. The sword holds us.” Deepest and least evil thing the man ever said.

I love that kinda shit! I’m sure you do too, so don’t brush off SWORD OF DESTINY.

Note: I don’t know what the deal is with the import discs that are out there – one review complained about not having English subtitles, but didn’t specify if it had the English audio.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Thursday, September 14th, 2017 at 11:06 am and is filed under Action, Martial Arts, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

27 Responses to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny”

  1. This is the first review that has ever liked Sword of Destiny and the power of Vern almost makes me want to watch it.

  2. Glad I’m not the only one who enjoyed this as (like Stern said) every single review ranks it as horrible. I don’t know what they went in expecting but I went in expecting a more traditional kung-fu movie that is just using the name of one of the greatest motions pictures of all time. Didn’t they listen to Werner Herzog when he defended calling his one movie BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS (so he could get the funding) on the basis that the name isn’t important but the content therein? I’m siding if the movie had a different name (or maybe was a sequel to a ‘lesser’ film) this one would not be getting shit one. I will admit it’s not a great one or an underappreciated classic so even if it was not a CROUCHING TIGER sequel it may still be mostly forgotten even though it’s not that old.

    So like Vern, I recommend it if you’re in the mood for an enjoyable (if unremarkable and maybe even ‘disposable’) martial arts movie. It’s not as good as Yuen Woo-Ping’s TRUE LEGEND (another movie that I think got unfairly shit on) but it’s nice to see him behind the camera directing again (which he says he prefers), I think he’s done more than enough to earn it.

  3. This movie is only horrible in the context of the original. I found it an enjoyable film. The english is a bit jarring and unforgivable in my opinion. It makes it sound like KUNG FU PANDA.

  4. geoffrey- Who the hell has the iron balls to shit on TRUE LEGEND. Hmpf. But still, I´ll fight his kung fu to the ground.

  5. I literary read nothing but harshly-negative reviews and articles about what an embarrassing flop TRUE LEGEND was at the HK box office before Vern posted his review and the comments started filling up (I was still in a self-imposed exile and not posting anymore but still lurking). Seems that maybe the tide is changing on the film, at least internationally. I was worried it was going to hurt Ping’s chances at directing more movies (again) but then he got this one and Tsui Hark has lined him up to direct a few projects as well. So no worries on that front.

  6. Was it because it featured CG effects? I can see why Kung Fu(ndementalists) would hate that. But I never thought they looked that bad, I guess they were a lot of fake backgrounds but I can´t remember as I have not watched it for a while- But, Jesus what´s wrong with people. It´s a fun movie.

  7. I think it was because they were wrong!

  8. I know it’s not fair to compare a pseudo-DTV sequel to a towering classic of the genre, but they asked for it. Not just because of the title, but also that so much of the film is a weak echo of the original done on the cheap in New Zealand. Also, it may be superficial of me (especially since so many classic kung fu movies were shot without sound and dubbed in multiple languages), but I just couldn’t get past the decision to shoot it in English. With all the Australian and New Zealand accents too, it just reminded me of XENA WARRIOR PRINCESS or something. This is on me, I guess. I liked the training scenes.

    Vern, is there a reason why you’re just now reviewing Netflix movies like OKJA and now this? Did you just recently get a Netflix account and now you’re catching up?

  9. This isn’t a great sequel to Crouching Tiger, but it’s a good Yuen Woo-Ping movie. I understand why some can’t separate the two, but tried to avoid the comparisons by purposefully not watching Crouching Tiger before watching the sequel.

    Also, I wonder why an American publishing company doesn’t translate the Crouching Tiger series. The movie has enough of a following to this day that I would imagine they would make a few bucks.

  10. The big difference is of course that Donnie is in the lead. As much as I love yun-fat Chow he’s no martial artist. A better actor, yes, but things will of course move a little faster with Mr Yen onboard.

  11. pegsman: maybe-interesting side-discussion. We non-Manadarin speakers praise Yun-Fat and Yeoh’s performance in the first one but one of the reason CROUCHING TIGER didn’t really catch on in it’s native land (it did okay but there are many articles out there with people from there asking ‘What’s the big deal?’ or worse ‘A Chinese movie for white people’) is that Yun-Fat and Yeoh are not native-Mandarin-speakers and if you’re-in-the-know apparently it really showed.

    That said, apparently they originally wanted Jet Li for Li Mu Bai but he turned them down (and the MATRIX sequels) to be with his wife while she was pregnant. I’ve often wondered how different the movie would’ve been and if it would have achieved the same success had been a TAI CHI MASTER reunion instead.

    With this one, the sequel, we got a WING CHUN reunion so I guess it worked out.

  12. Yes, Chow has said in interviews that he spoke the dialect badly. I think HERO shows us what it would have been with Li in the lead.

  13. pegs: So still awesome? Gotcha!

  14. as geoffreyjar so well put, the original CTHD didn’t really catch on in the parts of the world where the language its performed in is actually spoken. Perhaps because the audiences there didn’t respond well to the mishmash of accents and verbal skill of its performers.

    so its ironic, hugely so, that its sequel reproduces that effect in an entirely different language, and only got any sort of theatrical success anywhere in the world in China (where it was a solid, if not spectacular box office success). Sword of Destiny features a cast of actors who all speak perfect English, but no effort at all was made to make them have a unifying accent, so Michelle Yeoh’s third best language intersects with Donnie Yen’s rather unique Boston-accented second language English (his ‘Ohs’ give him away), while Jason Scott Lee’s standard Californian clashes even more so with the significantly Aussie sounding younger members of the cast.

    Its unusual for any one film, let alone a film depicting a seemingly homogenous cast to have so many clashing accents. I don’t think Sword of Destiny is a bad film exactly, and the accent thing wasn’t really anything I could honestly complain about, but it is perhaps another reason to add to the list to this film’s weirdly low profile (high production value follow up to a mega hit as it is).

  15. That’s one of the advantages of dubbing. Everybody speaks the same, dialect free German over here.

  16. This want a DTV affair. Rather, it was a full-court $20-30 million production that Netflix bought in post. If I recall, it was one of their first purchases and it served a dual function of granting legitimacy to the streaming service as a place for first-run movies while also saving TWC the expense of actually releasing the film domestically. TWC paid for the movie with foreign presales, but they were never gonna recoup the cost of marketing and distribution in US theaters. The project might also have been greenlighted in order to appeal to Chinese financiers whom TWC were courting for a revolving line of credit in order to keep the lights on.

    I’m summary, TWC is a very messy company that makes bizarre sequel choices and exists within a hair of bankruptcy at all times.

  17. *wasnt a DTV affair.

  18. IMPORTANT NOTE:

    according to Deadline, the movie was shot in both English *and* Mandarin!

    That explains the Subtitles question Vern had in the review. It also means that the Chinese co-financier probably paid the bulk of the $20-30 million production cost and TWC owned the domestic/English version.

    The real trick TWC pulled was wooing the family of the Pentology’s late author. They received very little money for the first film and TWC promised them a way better deal this time around. With the rights in hand, TWC got a chinese company to actually pay for most of the movie and then hoped for an upside on domestic distribution. They didn’t get the movie they wanted, but struck a deal with Netflix that made everyone look smart… I just hope the author’s family was paid upfront and/or had a stake in sale price rather than traditional backend points…

    All of this wheeling and dealing is why I love TWC. They’re kinda hucksters, but they’re really innovative hucksters who bet big on weird things.

    Also, Ronny Yu (Freddy vs Jason) almost directed the movie. That would’ve been interesting. His flick Bride with the White Hair was quite good.

  19. What would happen to Tarantino if TWC went bankrupt? Is that why he talks about retirement?

  20. geoff, you got me on what?

  21. CJ, but there are dialects in Deutschland too?

  22. Griff – surely somebody else in Hollywood would bet on him?

  23. Pegs: ?? I think I’m lost, our last correspondence was I asked about how CROUCHING TIGER would have been received if Jet Li had starred instead and you replied HERO showed us and I replied that that means you’re saying that it still would have been awesome.

    Tawdy: Most movies should have been directed by Ronny Yu. Still think Ronny Yu not ending up directing SNAKES ON A PLANE is one of the biggest what-ifs/biggest-missed opportunities.

  24. I don’t necessarily agree. I think some of the stuff that works in Freddy vs Jason is because of him but also a lot of it that doesn’t work is also because of him. That blurry slow motion thing he likes to do is THE WORST. I hate it so much and it completely takes me out of everything.

  25. Well that’s just like… your opinion man!

    Seriously though, when people mention Ronny Yu my mind first goes to BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR and FEARLESS and etc. Then I go ‘oh yeah! he directed BRIDE OF CHUCKY, FREDDY VS. JASON, and the kung fu Kangaroo movie. Also a TRAINSPOTTING/PULP FICTION knock-off long after everyone stopped ripping off both those movies but he somehow snagged the stars of both to be in his…’

    Griff: Happy birthday (again) if you miss my post in the AKIRA thread. Also, I don’t think someone of Tarintino’s caliber will have an issue finding new producing partners/studios to host him. I’d also think he has enough power to call the shots and have final edit with no one messing with him. At this point I’d think the Weinsteins need him way more than he’d need them. So cudos to him showing faithfulness to them. I often wonder why the Weinsteins are super great to some like Tarintino and Kevin Smith but then most everyone else they try to strong-arm, second-guess, and/or treat like shit and tell them their edit/ideas are awful.

  26. Count me as one more person who never knew this shit existed. Thanks Vern.

    I wish they’d done prequel films during that window when the leads could still pull off younger versions of themselves. Oh well, I’ll have to check this out at some point.

  27. I liked it too. Just commenting to add when I first saw it on Netlix, it had English and Mandarin audio options, so I’m curious how you guys didn’t get that.

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