Can’t a sequel be just (half) as awesome as the original for once?!

How much do I LOVE the original Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?  I can re-watch it over and over again.  It was one of the first Blu-rays I ever bought, (and a pricey one, too, as it’s a bit of a rarity) and although some of my selections tend to vary, it’s frequently a mainstay among the films I list as the best of the 00s as well as my top 15 of all time.  Ang Lee’s portrait of dual ill-fated romances – both of which ultimately concede to honor – is nothing short of a brilliant, beautiful and timeless masterpiece.  So, going into this 16-year-old sequel, I knew I should have tempered expectations to say the least.  And I tried!  But there was still a part of me that desperately wanted to feel teleported to the rural, mountainous landscapes of the Qing Dynasty that Lee so masterfully brought to on-screen life nearly two decades ago.  I wanted to feel lost in those lush, haunting forests and hypnotized by the badass-ness of the Green Destiny in action during those awesome Woo-Ping Yuen-choreographed fight scenes – with him in the director’s chair this time around!  But to place these expectations upon Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny at the start is more than a little unfair.  Masterpieces are tough acts to follow.

The story begins twenty years after the original as Yu Shu Lien (played by the ageless Michelle Yeoh) returns to Peking to mourn the death of her friend and father figure, Sir Te.  Control of the Martial World is up for grabs and Hades Dai (Jason Scott Lee), the sinister leader of the evil West Lotus, is led to believe the final piece of his conquest is the legendary sword once wielded by Li Mu Bai, the Green Destiny.  Dai dispatches one of his young soldiers, Wei-Fang (Harry Shum, Jr.), to steal it from inside the House of Te.  After a young, mysterious skilled fighter, Snow Vase (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), foils the robbery attempt, Shu Lien realizes Hades Dai will stop at nothing to obtain the sword to execute West Lotus’ destructive agenda.  She calls for reinforcements to assemble a protectorate for the Green Destiny, but in doing so, she summons a warrior linked to her and Li Mu Bai’s tragic past, Silent Wolf (the inimitable Donnie Yen).

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Image: Netflix

One of my favorite scenes from the first installment is the awesome initial fight when we see Jen Yu galloping along the moonlit rooftops of the Te estate at nightfall then facing off against Shu Lien before making her getaway with the Green Destiny.  Awesome scene, right?  Well, that doesn’t mean I want to see something extremely similar again…yet we do.  Repeatedly.  

As a matter of fact, there’s a lot of elements that ring far too closely to the original rather than doing something to make Sword of Destiny its own.  Silent Wolf is basically Li Mu Bai Lite (and doesn’t work as well); Snow Vase is a less interesting, but more annoying knock-off of Jen Yu; even Eugenia Yuan’s Blind Enchantress is slightly reminiscent of Jade Fox.  I feel like, particularly in this diegesis, there are limitless avenues to explore with these settings, characters and potential storylines so to simply regurgitate the same material with less effectiveness feels depressingly lame and really forces us to ask how much we needed to revisit this world at all – especially when it was done so well the first time.

According to a Deadline report, the budget for this film was just above $20 million while the original’s was around $17 million (albeit nearly twenty years ago).  Adjusting for inflation, the first one had a slightly larger budget, but why does Sword of Destiny look SO MUCH cheaper?!  The CGI tries to give a larger scope to the settings, but just ends up looking…well, like badly-rendered shoddy CGI.  At times, this has the look and feel of Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee franchise.  And don’t get me wrong – I love that franchise, but part of its charm is the cheesy CGI whereas one of the most appreciable aspects of CTHD’s world is the gorgeous, rich practical settings and backgrounds such as when Lo first meets Jen in the barren desert.  Or when Mu Bai tries to impart his wisdom upon her while they leap along the supple branches in the forest.  When a sequel looks so vastly different from its predecessor, it creates a rift that makes it harder for us to accept the continuing storyline as a connecting thread.  Instead, it feels tacked on.  It makes me think that Sword really would have worked better as a non-sequel – rather, just another story that occurs within the same universe.

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Image: Netflix

The fight scenes are the best thing about this movie, but damn…there were a lot of them!  Arguably, (I can’t believe I’m saying this) too many.  It seemed like most were forced in to give a shot in the arm to otherwise succinct moments.  The fights rarely pushed the story forward.  In a movie that duplicated so many of the original’s best elements, Sword of Destiny failed to hone in on the precise balance of action and romance featured in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  There were scenes in that film practically bursting at the perfs with so much radiating passion they were comparable to Like Water for Chocolate.  Here, we get none of that – largely in part because of the sheer volume of fight sequences, but also because Donnie Yen and Michelle Yeoh sorely lacked the white hot chemistry she shared with Chow Yun-fat.               

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny is not a worthy follow-up to the original masterpiece, but it’s definitely watchable and enjoyable enough as an average, run-of-the-mill action movie.  While it’s disappointing it’s not even half as good as the original, it’s also a testament to that film’s legacy.  Few films were better than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon during the decade it was released and sixteen years later, I’m still in the mood to re-watch it again.  And again.