In 2000 Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” did what few foreign films had done before, which is conquer the American market. The soaring wuxia romance was a blockbuster hit and an introduction to foreign-language dramas for a lot of people, and it also earned a whopping ten Oscar nominations, winning four. Ever since, Harvey Weinstein has made it his personal mission to try and recapture that magic with a sequel, but after sixteen years there wasn’t much demand for it to happen. And with the arrival “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny” to Netflix and a few IMAX theaters, the long wait has not proven to be worth it.
Lee never had much interest in a sequel, so the responsibility for this one falls on legendary fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, whose work on “The Matrix” and “The Grandmaster” is vastly different than anything his predecessor has achieved. Woo-ping is an amazing filmmaker, but he’s not Lee and the film immediately lacks the same poetic beauty. Gone are the wind-swept aerial battles in favor of action that is more visceral, and yet still breathtakingly gorgeous in their own way. The major flaw with the film is the disappointing story, a dull romance that tries and fails to echo the original.
Michelle Yeoh is back as solitary warrior Yu Shu Lien, who after eighteen years still carries a torch for her dead lover, Li Mu Bai. Continuing to walk the noble path of the Iron Way, Lien emerges to pay respect to the late Sir Te, who had been guarding the powerful Green Destiny blade. Like before, the sword has become the target of those who would use it for evil. In this case it’s the warlord Hades Dai (Jason Scott Lee) who seeks its power, and he sends the young thief Tiefang (Harry Shum Jr.) to steal it away. Also mirroring events of the first film, there’s a talented but conflicted young fighter, Snow Vase (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), in need of proper guidance. Finally, Shien reaches out to other warriors to help protect the blade, and the first to answer her call is Silent Wolf (Donnie Yen), who shares a past with her and Li Mu bai that draws further connections to the previous story.
Despite all of these uniting threads, ‘Sword of Destiny’ feels like a completely different movie, and not in a good way. There’s something low rent about it that cuts against the widescreen cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel. The landscapes aren’t nearly as wondrous this time around, and while there isn’t an abundance of CGI what is used doesn’t meet Woo-ping’s usual standards. But it has more to do with the story, which has more of an Americanized Western feel (Silent Wolf dresses and acts like a typical cowboy) to it that doesn’t mesh with these characters’ Eastern sensibilities. With the ethnic mix of stars it was also decided to shoot in English, which is all the more confusing when Mandarin is poorly dubbed onto a Hawaiian actor.
This also has an affect on the individual performances. Yeoh, who at 53-years-old is as physical and vital as ever, has a presence that immediately commands respect. There may not be a better synthesis of actress with a role in recent history, which makes it all the more disappointing we don’t see more of her in this film. The same goes for Yen, who takes the name “Silent Wolf” perhaps too strongly as he barely has anything to do until the final battle. Part of that is the centerpiece fight between Silent Wolf and his two greatest foes as they gracefully glide across a cracking ice surface, an attempt to emulate the sheer majesty of the original film’s gravity-defying rooftop sequence. But that’s pretty much the sequel in a nutshell; it tries to fill the gigantic shoes left by a classic rather than forging its own path, and that choice left it destined to fail.