The original Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was something of an anomaly upon its release. The film was a success on dual fronts, equally appealing to two different audiences. For action movie fans enamored with Yuen Woo-Ping’s balletic fight choreography, the film was an easy sell, with an orgy of wire fu on display in all the marketing materials. Likewise, aficionados of art house and foreign films were drawn to it for all the “boring” bits between the swordplay, the sumptuous cinematography and Ang Lee’s startling thematic imagery. There’s thrilling pugilism perfectly married to visual poetry in a way few films ever properly realize.

Its sequel, subtitled Sword of Destiny in the States, achieves no such balance. Based on the final entry in Du Lu Wang’s Crane-Iron book series, the film leans too heavily in the wrong direction of the high and low culture balance of its predecessor. Ang Lee is gone, with Woo-Ping directing in his stead, so the action remains on point and well-executed, but the tragic romance and the classically assured approach Lee brought is severely missed. Without his unique touch with visually expressing complex emotions, the movie devolves into an average martial arts film, westernized to a fault. The movie was filmed in English, with more than half the cast speaking with a British accent. The pulpy, Wuxia roots have been smoothed over with a typical, restrictive approach to epic storytelling. It feels more like an episode of “Game of Thrones” than anything in its original lineage.

The narrative picks up 20 years after Li Mu Bai’s death at the end of the first film, with his unrequited love Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) still mourning the loss. The political landscape has shifted to a more martial quagmire surrounding malevolent warlord Hades Dai (Jason Scott Lee) and his quest for dominance. Mu Bai’s titular sword, the Green Destiny, has been repurposed here as a convenient, if ill-defined, MacGuffin. Shu Lien vows to keep the blade out of enemy hands, teaming up with old flame Silent Wolf (Donnie Yen), with whom she rekindles the kind of restrained, unspoken romance that powered the first film. Elsewhere, another new generation of fighters mimic the B-plot from the last film as well, but there’s very little about any of the goings-on that feels as engaging as Jen’s arc. Now, some of that is because none of the performers here are on Zhang Ziyi’s level, but much of it is a lack of ambition in the writing.

Put simply, if you really wanted to script a sequel to a film like Crouching Tiger, would you hire the guy who wrote Young Guns? John Fusco is by no means a hack, but there’s something indelicate about his approach that makes this film feel less like a cheap knockoff than a wholly unrelated exercise entirely. Connecting these two movies succeeds in little more than solemn longing for the original and irritated side-eyeing at this unambitious new installment. Through the lens of continuing the legacy of an art house classic, Sword of Destiny is a misfire of massive proportions. It reads like an ill-conceived cover of a song divorced from its intended genre and tone, like those ironic metalcore reinterpretations of sincere pop ballads.

Viewed through another lens, however, it’s a different story. Taken at face value as a straight-to-Netflix action movie, this is a real embarrassment of riches. Woo-Ping’s proven ability to stage convincing and graceful hand-to-hand combat is a real boon here, as the battles depicted are beautifully conceived and competently photographed. The sequences are all well-shot and edited, with a sturdy coherence that belies its otherwise flashy nature. But it’s hard to care much about any of the characters who aren’t being played with veteran élan by Yen and Yeoh, but at least when the swords come out and hands get thrown, everyone is on equal dramatic footing. Frequent Bryan Singer collaborator Newton Thomas Siegel captures the action and the landscapes with a vibrant sense of grandeur, so overall, everything looks a cut above the usual DTV fare with which this film seems to be competing.

Why so much of this film was shot in New Zealand remains a baffling question, however. Peter Jackson has made sure the global consciousness scans that countryside as Middle Earth, so whole swaths of Sword of Destiny take on an unintended otherwordliness that gets in the way of its period piece aims. This simple location scouting oddity is just a piece of what’s wrong with the film’s approach. Everything in the film is set at a distance from the culture, the source material and the previous cinematic outing that preceded it, making it impossible to immerse oneself in the story for anything more than the cursory thrills of watching strangers kick each other in the face. It’s said Zhang Ziyi didn’t want to come back for the sequel unless Ang Lee returned as well. We can see why.

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Blithe Spirit

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