I have not been looking forward to this for quite some time.
The Weinstein Company’s inexplicable campaign to marginalize Asian action films, and minimize its effect on American cinema, has been going on for decades now (see my Daily Grindhouse op-ed one post away on this site). Even as far as two years ago I spoke to several crew members of what has become known as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, and they spoke quizzically of the unfocused tone and strange ennui that seemed to permeate the production. And when I heard that Joe Fusco, who had scripted the Weinsteins’ monument to kung fu ignorance, Forbidden Kingdom, had been assigned to write this as well, I suspected that the same blinkered obliviousness would hold sway.
Even the news that the venerable Yuen Wo Ping would be directing did not inspire confidence. Although deservedly legendary for his ground-breaking choreography and collaborations with superstar Jackie Chan, when left to his own devices, he made some of the strangest, scattershot, crazed kung fu films ever (like Miracle Fighters and Shaolin Drunkard). That’s fine, but more ominous was the fact that ever since he started working in America on the likes of The Matrix and Kill Bill, word from the sets suggested that he said “what do you want” more than “this is what you should do.”
So, suffice to say, I tuned into the English version (the language it was filmed in) on Netflix expecting exactly what I got: a contrived, stilted, artificial, uninformed, Westernized semi-epic that played like a “Bruce Lee clone” version of the classic original. Taken simply as a derivative Asian action film knock-off, it was entertaining in a cheap, chop socky, sort of way. But, taken as a follow-up to an Oscar-winning, box-office-busting work of action cinema art, it’s a callous, knowing, even cynical diminishment.
Okay, so let’s consider it in the light of the former estimation. As a source of fun, dangerous drinking games, it’s a masterpiece. If you take a shot after every line of dialog that sounds cribbed from a fortune cookie, you’ll be dead of alcohol poisoning halfway through. In truth, there’s only three kinds of dialog in this thing. Fortune cookie pronouncements, radio dialog (where a character artificially fills in backstory), and forced “dum ba dum-dum” conversations that might seem clever on the page, but sounds totally fake coming out of people’s mouths. In fact, I don’t recall a single line that would have been said by an actual human. Much easier on the liver would be another drinking game where you take a swig every time the look of the film abruptly shifts from sweeping IMAX bait (of New Zealand, of all places) to a bland, flat TV Movie.
But enough of my uninformed grousing. Let’s get to my informed grousing, i.e., the kung fu itself (credited to Yuen, and two Hobbit alums, Tim Wong and Augie Davis). At the last kung fu tournament I attended, while watching a flashy exhibition, world taichi push hands champion Stephe Watson leaned over and commented “You ever notice the louder they are, the less skilled they are?” CTHD:SoD is plenty loud.
This simplistic tale of Yu Shulien (Michelle Yeoh) seeking to safeguard the The Green Destiny sword — which has somehow taken on some sort of inexplicable mystical power sixteen years after the fact – from a stereotypical Yellow Peril (Jason Scott Lee, best known for starring in the contrived Bruce bio pic Dragon), with the help of “Silent Wolf” (Donnie Yen), who seems to have jumped in from 2002’s Hero (another kung fu classic the Weinsteins managed to minimize in America) is hobbled by the filmmakers’ apparent desire to wrestle the effort from an Eastern to a Western.
Why else would an assignment for a martial art assassin be decried as a “sure suicide mission,” since that was what those nihilistic types wanted? Why else would supposedly extensively trained warriors repeatedly run screeching at enemies so they could punch them in the face with closed fists – the single stupidest thing a kung fu student could do? And why else would fighters be shown to lose all their previously vaunted talents so they could essentially run directly onto the sword of a wicked woman wushu warrior who was obviously cast for her looks, not her fighting skills? Lots of John Wayne thinking here. Very little Bruce Lee.
Poor Michelle Yeoh looks depressed throughout, apparently just graduating from the Daniel Craig Spectre School of Dead-eyed Thespian Constipation. However, Donnie Yen emerges from this martial-arts-McDonalds of a movie with the least damage. In the past, Donnie’s insistence on never looking less than consummately capable has thrown off the balance in such films as Dragon Tiger Gate (2006) and Kung Fu Killer (2014). Here, however, his wushu ego is a refreshing change from the albatrosses the Weinsteins hang from every one else’s necks. Donnie actually smiles in this film (something he hasn’t done in his last few) and anchors the two best fight scenes.
The bottom line is: if you like chop suey with plenty of msg, dig in and enjoy. You may have a headache and high blood pressure afterwards, but what did you expect? However, if you’re looking for an authentic, delicious, Chinese feast, steer clear (and go see Kung Fu Panda 3 instead).