While it features the directorial talents of Yuen Woo-ping and is based on a novel by Wang Dulu, there’s something missing in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny. The 2016 motion picture is the sequel to 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and features some stellar fight choreography, as one would expect from Woo-ping.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny makes use of a terse screenplay by John Fusco, the creator of Netflix’s Marco Polo series, and doesn’t spend a lot of time establishing a sense of character or place. Unlike its predecessor, there is little interest in establishing a legend or in telling the audience why these events matter.
Michelle Yeoh returns as Yu Shu Lien and it’s been 18 years since the death of Wudang swordsman Li Mu Bai. She is still guarding the Green Destiny sword and she was once engaged to be married to Silent Wolf (Donnie Yen), but they’re repressed their desires out of a sense of duty. This time, the warlord Hades Dai (Jason Scott Lee) is trying to get the sword.
And he sends Wei Fang (Harry Shum, Jr.) to pick up the thing for him, but the kid gets busted and put in a cage. Snow Vase (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) has been trying to steal the sword for herself in hopes of getting revenge on Yu Shu Lien, but she ends up seeking help from the master swordswoman instead. Things come to a head when Wei Fang is freed and snags the sword for his master.
If the plot sounds familiar, it should. Fusco’s screenplay is almost a duplicate of the events of the original, complete with characters filling in similar gaps and more repressed love. But while Wang Hui-ling, James Schamus and Tsai Huo Jung’s 2000’s screenplay gave these events emotional and historical weight, Fusco fails to lay the groundwork.
Characters are supposed to matter because the audience is told they do. In part, the problem is that the picture is too rushed. It clocks in at just 90 minutes and feels even shorter thanks to its brisk action sequences, but there isn’t any layering to the events and the romantic entanglements don’t sink in.
It’s too bad, as Yeoh and Yen do manufacture some pining glances and Bordizzo and Shum, Jr. seem like they could start some fires. But Woo-ping’s movie just blows through it, providing a pile-up of short action scenes in lieu of resonance and a few CGI-aided establishing shots in lieu of legend.
There are some thrilling sequences, like a fight on the ice that features some classic wuxia moves. But, and there’s almost always a but with this film, it’s too brief and the computer-assisted stuff comes into play too frequently. Yen and Co. do a fine job fighting each other with a lack of balance and there’s no need for giant blocks of ice to come into play.
The relationship between Snow Vase and Yu Shu Lien seems ripe for some thrilling fights, but there’s no energy. Snow Vase’s training appears to mimic Jen Yu’s wrenching moments from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but even these scenes fizzle too quickly and there’s no pathos behind them. There’s nothing that stands out, nothing that seems unforgettable.
Shigeru Umebayashi, who has scored a run of great pictures, is in charge of the music here and he hits the right notes with sweeping, downhearted arrangements. But he can’t escape the aesthetic, which seems geared toward a wider screen but makes use of a surprisingly dull colour scheme and offsets it with gratuitous CGI. Only the organic sequences truly look the part.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny is a disappointment. It’s not a terrible movie and some of the fight sequences are thrilling, but it fails to generate the passion and magic necessary to tell such a fabled story. It doesn’t allow for enough time to get to know the characters or their motivations and, as such, it lands with an unfortunate thud.