16 years on, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon remains the highest-grossing foreign language film of all time in the US. An impressive anomaly not only given a market that grows more risk-averse to subtitles with each passing year, but also because Crouching Tiger isn’t exactly the Western mold of an action movie, deliberately paced and spreading its fight scenes pretty far apart. Really, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a romantic tragedy in kung-fu garb, the story of one young couple star-crossed by geography and class, and the other of two adults too stupidly bound by honor to do admit their feelings to themselves.
Well over a decade later, a sequel, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, arrives exclusively on Netflix, and is the opposite of its predecessor in every way. I counted three fight scenes in the first ten minutes, and instead of a character drama framed in a broader conflict, the conspiracy to steal the legendary sword that caused so much trouble in the first film, the Green Destiny, takes front and center stage. ‘Restraint’ is not the name of the game here.
Stepping in for Ang Lee, Sword of Destiny is helmed by Yuen Woo-Ping, the legendary fight choreographer who not only staged the battles of first film and Stateside fare like The Matrix and Kill Bill, but also has an extensive career as a director, including classics like Iron Monkey and Jackie Chan’s Legend of the Drunken Master.
Right off the bat, Woo-Ping’s visual style is completely different, all high-contrast colors and symmetrical framing, as opposed to Lee’s more muted, slightly off-kilter approach. And as you would expect, Woo-Ping knows his way around a fight scene. Neat the end of the second act, a snow-set battle on a frozen lake stands out as particularly compelling and gorgeous to look at (even though it seemed like it was spring just a few scenes earlier.) But when it comes to character – at least in this film – Woo-Ping shows some deficiencies as a filmmaker. (Though to be fair, John Fusco’s script does him no favors.)
Say what you will about the first one, it’s pretty slow, and for the most part humorless. But it does have characters and motivations that are always clear and relatable. When a fight breaks out, rare as it is, the stakes are always understood. Plus, other flourishes of Lee’s filmmaking help push the story forward without banging it on the nose. When one character finally gives into desire, and skin is shown, it’s even more startlingly erotic because of how literally buttoned-up they’d been before. Here, acting mostly consists of a bald-headed Jason Scott Lee glowering with the silliest bad guy smile you’ve ever seen, and writing consists of bragging about how he’s going to use the Green Destiny to… conquer something, I guess?
But perhaps the most surprising casualty of this transition from one sequel to the other is the mishandling of Wuxia, the style or cinematic kung-fu where actors are attached to invisible wires and leap to ridiculous heights, jumping from rooftops, running up walls, and sending enemies flying. Perhaps the most impressive feat of the original Crouching Tiger is that it somehow found a way to keep these fights visually grounded, and it was a core component on every confrontation in the film. Here, it seems almost like an afterthought, and when it appears the CGI enhancement is pretty garish, not used to simply erase evidence of the wires but try and amp up the action in mostly hollow ways, since the character motivation is rarely there and seeing a sword split a roof in half doesn’t really make a lot of sense visually if your heroes aren’t superheroes or imbued with some God-like power (which none of the characters here are.)
It feels almost unfair to compare the two films, since they are so utterly different in so many ways. Frankly, Sword of Destiny is at its best when plays as an action comedy. Some early fight scenes are almost Buster Keaton-esque in their slapstick creativity and timing, such as a fight between two ninjas who are trying not knock over any vases in room filled with nothing but vases, or a bar brawl between Donnie Yen’s Silver Fox and his own ragtag crew of kung-fu Avengers where feet are literally stepped on and soup ladels are put to good use. If you can give yourself over to its goofy charms, Sword of Destiny gets more endearingly silly as it goes along. As a 90-minute distraction on Netflix on a slow Sunday night, Sword of Destiny actually does its job pretty well.
But a spiritual successor to its predecessor this ain’t. Sword of Destiny actually begins to approach something resembling substance when – after several characters you may actually like die – Michelle Yeoh (our hero, by the way) ponders aloud what good is all this adherence to words like ‘duty’ and ‘honor’ when all it does is seem to get a lot of people killed. Of course, 30 minutes later at the end of the movie, Yeoh rides off into the sunset, most of the main characters alive, her voiceover telling us how deeply she believes in the concepts she was just doubting earlier. It certainly undercuts the tragic nature of the first film. And nothing here quite matches the grace of Chow Yun Fat and Zhang Ziyi fighting in actual bamboo trees, swords in hands and feet on branches, seemingly light as air.
(NOTE: I watched Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny in Chinese with English subtitles, an option I had to go out of my way to select. I assumed that, like the original, Sword of Destiny had been produced in Chinese, and I didn’t want to watch a cheesy English dub. As it turns out, Sword of Destiny was written and performed entirely in English, which explains why at times the lips didn’t seem to sync in the Chinese audio track! I thought it was about the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese dialects! You can choose which audio track you would prefer, while I wonder if my assumption was a bit racist…)