Written by Matt Haviland
CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON: SWORD OF DESTINY PLOT SUMMARY:
Master warrior Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) returns to Peking to stop Green Destiny, her departed friend’s legendary blade, from falling into the hands of the violent West Lotus gang. When she gets there, everyone gets ready for the West Lotus invasion.
Netflix has been on a roll these past few years. It seems that almost every original series they release has been good (Bloodline, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp), great (House of Cards, Love), or sublime (Orange Is the New Black, Master of None). Their forays into film have been equally successful. Last year’s Beasts of No Nation garnered awards-show attention (instantly gaining credit as a “real movie,” something HBO films struggle to seem like) and was released on Netflix on the same day it hit theaters. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny is being released the same way. While theaters have balked at the unfair advantage of simultaneous home release, with films like these, Netflix should make as much cinema as they want. Despite its direct-to-DVD vibe, Sword of Destiny not only lives up to the example set by its predecessor (while eschewing its influence in many ways) but is one of the most aesthetically astonishing works this century. It’s worth watching.
One didn’t expect a sequel to the smash hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Though based on part of Wang Dulu’s Crane-Iron Pentalogy, it tells a complete story. But it was big enough for a sequel, being one of the larger cultural events from a serious foreign film. Though much of the fanfare was about the gravity-defying moves—people running on walls, leaping across rooftops, hanging from trees (choreographer Woo-Ping Yuen fresh off his experiences with The Matrix)—Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a powerful Buddhist meditation on destiny, social roles, and existence. With great actors and cinematography, this was not another martial arts flick. It was a masterpiece. Deeply timeless while also, given its emphasis on women transcending their social constraints (one scene shows the preternatural warrior Jen Yu [Ziyi Zhang] demolishing a restaurant of men who questioned whether she could be a master), ahead of its time.
Enter Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, which sounds more like a cash-in than the inspired cinema that came before. While Netflix has chosen consistently excellent projects, this movie’s existence seems strange (like making a sequel to Titanic), and its direct-to-Netflix premiere underlines rather than shrugs away the feeling of cheapness. Unfortunately, the first half-hour does feel cheapened. The focus on the legendary Green Destiny sword seems to break with the beautiful depth of the first film. Monologues inform us that this sword is said to make its master invincible. Genghis Kahn–archetype Hades Dai (Jason Scott Lee) hungers to rule the world with it. When the sword was stolen in the first film, the thief took it for fun, not personal gain (and was berated by her master because it was more trouble than it was worth). But in Sword of Destiny, everyone needs to protect this sword and everyone else needs to have it.
Plainly put, Sword of Destiny starts out cartoonish and heavy handed, which is compounded by two things: silliness and highly saturated cinematography. Silliness first. Every other character seems to have a colorful name (Silent Wolf, Snow Vase, Hades Dai… in one scene, four fighters announce themselves before battle like it’s Dragon Ball Z and they’re shouting the names of their attacks). What makes everything feel cheaper (at first) is the cinematography, which is so saturated, it feels like watching Instagram House of Flying Daggers, brightly colored robes and pastel scenery boiled over to the point where you’re queasy. Against the naturalistic, gorgeous cinematography of the first film, this seemed like now-director Woo-Ping Yuen (Iron Monkey, Drunken Master) wasn’t confident enough in his shots (which are stupendous; check out the shadows of horses blooming through a tunnel before their riders emerge into the night) and asked cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (Drive, X-Men: Days of Future Past) to stylize everything until it looked like the opening credits to Better Call Saul.
After the early hijinks and heavy handed scene setting (and after one becomes used to the saturated color palettes), everything comes together. When Silent Wolf (Donnie Yen)—who brings four warriors to help defend the late Sir Te’s compound against the West Lotus gang—reveals his identity, what seemed like a bunch of new characters plus Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) becomes this quilt of interlocking destiny. Even the cartoonish foursome brought by Silent Wolf take on pathos, their personas transcended by scenes of deep feeling alongside one late-night drinking session with Shu Lien disciple Snow Vase (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) recalling those warm, sloppy scenes from Mad Men where Sterling Cooper loosen their ties and get real about their feelings. Suddenly characters get into deep discussions, tossing off lines about how personal backstory doesn’t belong in a sacred room and how absurd it is that everyone’s fighting over this green-hilted sword. And the acting is uniformly great, from Yeoh’s warmly reserved Shu Lien to Chris Pang’s heartfelt joker Flying Blade. Everyone strikes every note perfectly.
Moreover, once you get used to the saturation, Sword of Destiny becomes mesmerizing. Silent Wolf’s flashback is where I realized how great the style is. We’re transported suddenly from the midnight blues and glowing oranges of the compound to a breathtaking shot of Silent Wolf on a high mountain battling Hades Dai—their outfits muted pastels and the world around them drenched with the saturated hues of Japanese Ukiyo-e paintings. The scene made me realize the intense colorization was intentional, ambitious, revelatory, surpassing even Mad Max: Fury Road for saturated splendor. They say great films teach you how to watch them. In this case, great cinematography teaches you how beautiful it is. One climactic battle has two characters sliding around on a frozen lake, snow dust swirling at their feet, darkened trees sleeping in the distance, and the moon shining above them like God. Then the ice cracks. Oh golly. The film is like stained glass.
What’s happening within these gorgeous brushstrokes is even better. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was famous for its choreography, and while it was entrancing, that film was surpassed by others since, such as the aforementioned House of Flying Daggers and even Kung Fu Hustle. But now the chickens have come to roost—the sequel has some of the most inventive, flat-out entertaining fight sequences I’ve ever seen, one stacked on another. From small snatches, like the guards poking their poles through a metal cage while captured soldier Wei Fang (Harry Shum Jr.) grumpily deflects them, to brief sequences, like Wei Fang and Snow Vase fighting each other quietly in a cramped, cluttered room as they try to steal Green Destiny without being heard, to full-blown extravaganzas, like the melee outside the tavern, where everyone brings their own style to the madness (even the woman behind the counter pouring steaming lunch on some guy’s head), this movie has every kind of martial arts action sequence you can hope for. And as characters and story become more developed, everything takes on more gravity, with the scene on the ice and apocalyptic later-stage battles packing on the drama.
This seems like a movie that rewards multiple viewings. I might watch it again this weekend. Even the silliness of the beginning probably meshes better now that I know where everything’s heading. Even Green Destiny transcends being some legendary weapon, instead becoming a powerful symbol for the senselessness of warfare and the perils of arrogance. It’s similar to the One Ring. Moreover, Sword of Destiny builds on its preexisting symbolism (sorrow, willpower) by having it reflect the shackles of perceived destiny, a theme Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon explored and this film expands on. And all around the sword, characters trade wisdom and deepen their relationships. They discuss following honor rather than ego while the world breathes fire and ice, deep blues in the endless night scenes swapped out for daylight’s stark palette changes. This movie is pure poetry, visually, tonally, choreographically, and with each resonant burst of insight the characters share.
Spring Breakers. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Sin City. Drive. These films bring aesthetics beyond augmentation and into the fiber of their existence. They drag us into another world via movie magic. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny is a triumph of cranking the visuals to eleven and riding as fast as you can with the windows down. Were the beginning less heavy handed, the film would be on par with the original. But it’s awesome, worthy of your Netflix evening one hundred percent. Netflix has hit another home run. Sword of Destiny lives up to its predecessor by striking out on its own journey, not letting the past tell it what it’s supposed to be (that sober, earth-toned sage) but becoming the blazing, enlightened warrior it always had inside. The first film was better, but this one is great too.
RATING: 9 OUT OF 10