Another day, another sequel that people neither wanted nor needed. I’ve been nervous about this movie ever since it was announced back in 2013 – the first instalment, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is one of my favourite films and the suggested follow-up just seemed like another example of how creatively bankrupt Hollywood has become recently. Not only that, but the supposed ‘Westernisation’ of one of the most acclaimed Wuxia (literally ‘martial arts hero’) movies of all time (I read somewhere that it has won over 40 awards and is still the only film of that genre to ever win an Oscar) seemed inherently wrong and incredibly arrogant. Like when they tried to remake District 13 (Brick Mansions), Let the Right One In (Let Me In) or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (same title, but the Hollywood one had James Bond in it) ostensibly for American audiences – what’s the point? It’s never going to be as good as the original and you’ll get a lot of flak from the fans.
Still, there was a tiny glimmer of hope. Professional badass Michelle Yeoh confirmed that she was reprising her role from the first movie, and Donnie Yen – star of the brilliant IP Man and Hero, amongst others – signed on to the project. And then I heard that Woo-Ping Yuen – the prolific martial arts choreographer – was attached to direct, so I was prepared to give Sword of Destiny the benefit of the doubt. The movie was released on Netflix (as well as a few IMAXs in the US – although not as many as intended) on the 26th of Feb and… it was ok. Just ok. Bit of a let-down to tell you the truth.
The story picks up 14 years after the events of Crouching Tiger, with the ‘martial world’ (whatever that means) in turmoil as an uppity warlord ominously named Hades Dai (Scott Lee) runs amok. He’s after the Green Destiny sword – the sword from the first movie – so he can… do… something. A returning Yu Shu Lien (Yeoh) and a band of pointless heroes, led by a character called ‘Silent Wolf’ (Yen – who oddly gets a higher billing than Michelle Yeoh) try to stop him and eventually do – but only after a rogue gallery of characters try to steal the sword for themselves.
The plot is not the most innovative and it recycles elements and even some scenes from the first movie. There is plenty of padding that needlessly complicates the narrative, and far too many characters – the majority of whom serve no purpose whatsoever. I’m not sure whether this was a translation thing (the film is in English with a Chinese dub available online), but the dialogue was very clunky at times and seemed to refer to characters by different names, which was confusing. The majority of the performances were… fine, but were undermined by the poor story and dialogue. The pointless heroes tended to ham it up a bit, delivering their lines like am/dram actors overdoing Shakespeare – they reminded me of the Warriors Three from the Thor movies; more caricatures than characters.
While it may not be entirely fair to judge this film by its predecessor, the comparison is inevitable. One of the most striking differences is difficult to explain, but Sword of Destiny feels so much… smaller than the first movie. Part of this, ironically, seems to be a result of using CGI for establishing shots of grand scenery and city-scapes in place of real locations and large sets. It gives the film a weird sense of claustrophobia – shots seem flat and lack depth, you can almost see the green screen.
Part of this small scale feeling is also likely down to the different styles of the respective directors. Perhaps as a result of his extensive experience as a martial arts choreographer (he has literally been responsible for most of the kung fu fights you’ve ever seen) Woo-Ping Yuen focuses very closely on his characters – especially during fight scenes. While this is a brilliantly visceral technique that can lend a sense of energy and urgency to a complex fight scene (see The Raid 2, for example) – it is a stark contrast to Ang Lee’s more contemplative style which included wider shots and more static composition, creating a feeling of openness and scale that simply isn’t present in Sword of Destiny.
On the subject of fight scenes, the ones in this movie to be fundamentally less engaging than those in other films – which is odd, given that Woo-Ping Yuen probably choreographed most of them. There are a number of reasons for this, but a key element is the simple fact that there are too many characters to care about. The climax of the Sword of Destiny involves nearly every major character we meet over the course of the story and the audience simply isn’t given enough time to get invested in everything that’s going on. While they are obviously very different movies, I found myself again thinking of The Raid 2 and the exhaustingly brilliant sequence towards the end of that film – an ensemble ending simply cannot compare with and intense one-on-one like that. There is a reason most movies end with the latter.
That being said, one point where Sword of Destiny really came alive was during an inspired fight scene that takes place on a frozen lake. The characters skate along as they fight, shattering the surface as they move. Unfortunately, this scene was desperately short and felt like a missed opportunity.
You get the distinct impression that the film has been significantly cut-down to fit a time limit. The editing throughout is bizarre, with several scenes clearly ending before they were finished and moving onto something else before you can get to grips with what you’ve just seen. Conversely, some scenes go on way longer than they should, even after all the characters have stopped talking. This really screws up the pacing of the narrative and smacks of studio meddling… and is, of course, extremely annoying. Everything seems rushed – story elements and characters are introduced at random points purely to move the film along or get characters to certain scenes. It’s all a bit of a mess, frankly.
All in all, I can’t say that I recommend Sword of Destiny. While I admit that I may be biased in favour of the first movie, that doesn’t excuse the flaws with this film. The most frustrating thing about it is that most of its problems are easy fixes. Fewer characters, a tighter story, and better pacing would all go a long way to making Sword of Destiny a much better movie. I don’t even think it should have gone out of its way to look like the first Crouching Tiger – I’m all for innovation and I would have been interested to see what a different director could bring to the table. This movie is like what The Hobbit trilogy is to Lord of the Rings – the first had passion and nuance and resonated with audiences because of it. The follow up lost a little something of its soul and felt like it was made because someone in a studio office somewhere wanted more money. Sword of Destiny is a functional film. But it could have been so much more.