3.5 stars out of 5
Some reviewers will have you believe that this is the second coming of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The comparisons are inevitable since Ang Lee’s 2000 classic has become the modern touchstone for the wuxiapian (swordfighting martial arts film) genre.
While this John Woo-produced and co-directed film does have memorable swordfighting scenes – though none that resemble the gravity-defying bamboo-forest sequence of its illustrious predecessor – and features a credible ensemble performance, such a comparison does Ang Lee’s lyrical film a disservice. (You'll want to read John Woo's interview with inSing here!)
It also clouds expectations of what is, in its own right, a perfectly legitimate and enjoyable wuxiapian. Despite Woo’s recent protestations that the film is director Su Chao-Pin’s own – Su wrote the script after all – there are many Woo hallmarks to be found throughout this picture.
First off, there is the Face/Off element. A young, highly skilled assassin named Drizzle (Kelly Lin) decides that she is done with her life of crime and bloodshed. She engages a cosmetic surgeon of the day – who uses strange flesh-and-bone eating insects – and has her appearance changed.
She assumes a false identity as a more mature-looking Zeng Jing (Michelle Yeoh, with a youthful dubbed voice) (Read Michelle Yeoh's interview with inSing) in hopes of starting her life anew. (Escaping one’s criminal past – another of Woo’s gangster-flick trademarks.) She soon gets wooed by a handsome young man (Korean star Jung Woo-Sung) and marital bliss is on the cards.
Then her past predictably catches up with her, in the form of her former accomplices (Wang Xueqi, Shawn Yue, Leon Dai), who are joined by a bloodthirsty new recruit (Barbie Hsu). They seek to pull her back into life on the fringe, to resume a protracted plot to track down the enchanted remains of a mystical Buddhist monk.
Cornered, Zeng Jing has to figure out how to defeat her powerful associates and keep her man safe. She has, however, some fatal flaws inherent in her swordplay, and her beau turns out to not be all he appears.
To be sure, this film has its own key flaws, including an overly long and cutesy romantic interlude that sets up Zeng Jing and her would-be husband, as well as a struggle to find its ending. But Woo has certainly delivered an above-average film befitting the genre.
If nothing else, the fight scenes have been shot with a genuine respect and appreciation for their aesthetics. For the viewer, they are sure to thrill; one can tell that the cast – and stand-ins where appropriate – have done a magnificent job, going through the paces with great elegance and strength.
Far too many of the recent run-of-the-mill wuxiapian have merely star vehicles with little artistic ambition, punctuated by slipshod fight sequences – frequently edited to death with quick cuts – that are augmented with cartoonish special effects.
Here, Yeoh will be remembered for giving audiences a strong heroine figure to root for, despite her jarring initial transformation. Hers is a typically reliable performance; she is able to convey steel and vulnerability with equal competence. Watching her unleash her fighting skills onscreen – looking good in the bargain – is a real delight.
As her romantic interest, Jung often looks blithely innocent, a tad gullible, and seemingly guileless, which suits his role just right. Wang does very well as the sinister gang leader while Yue is a good fit for the role of a philosophical assassin with a penchant for needles. (He is involved in a shoot-out of sorts with his needles – John Woo all over again.)
A real eye-opener is the sultry turn by Hsu, long a straight-laced darling of Taiwanese idol dramas, who plays a murderous prostitute recruited Nikita-like to replace Drizzle’s position on the gang. Her character, who seemingly has no conscience, has a funny recurrent habit of removing her clothes in multiple attempts to manipulate others.
While this is no Crouching Tiger, such an assertion is not a put-down at all. Reign of Assassins vividly proves that crime-thriller expert John Woo, after dabbling in the period war-epic subgenre with Red Cliff, is able to translate his filmmaking ethos into the wuxiapian as well.
One can only wait for Woo’s signature doves to flutter his next time out.
About Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.