BY JERRY DEAN ROBERTS | March 9, 2016
In show business timing is everything, and when you take too long to follow-up on your success, you’re setting yourself up for weak soup. This has been the case for Sin City, Basic Instinct, Wall Street, Indiana Jones, TRON and, I’ll wager, the upcoming My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2. It is never a good idea to let the audience cool their heels. If you wait too long, people grow up, tastes change, and the culture threatens to move past your inspiration.
Such is the case with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which came out 15 years-ago and took the world by storm with its passionate story and its bravado wire-work. It was a beautifully-made Hong Kong import that quickly became (and still remains) the highest grossing foreign film of all time and even earned an Oscar nomination that year for Best Picture.
The sequel Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (now streaming on Netflix) does not rise to those heights. It’s an so-so follow-up that often feels more like an afterthought, both structurally and culturally. By this point the original film has spawned so many imitators that the original burst of inspiration doesn’t really surface here. Fifteen years later, the story catches up with Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh, playing the only character from the original). After the death of her beloved Li Mu Bai (played in the original by Chow Yun-Fat), she now lives in solitude as a Forgotten Ghost. Despite her weary heart, she still travels across the lands of warring factions to pay her respects to Li Mu Bai’s relatives. While on the journey, her late love’s sword, The Green Destiny is stolen.
What seems to be a simple quest of thievery balloons into an all-out war. Yu is asked if she would apprentice a beautiful young woman named Snow Vase (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) after she helps her get the sword back. But then it seems that every warring clan on the Western countryside is after the sword, most notably the West Lotus clan who is gathering other factions like Silver Dart Shi and Thunder Fist Clan. Therefore, predictably, the whole second half of the movie is given over to the gravity defying stunts. The problem is they aren’t as fresh or exhilarating. Yeah, they still leap around, but nothing can match that beautiful moment with Li Mu Bai leaping around in the treetops.
There are moments here and there that suggest the greatness of the earlier film but they are all set pieces, thrilling for the moment but not really all that important to the larger task at hand. The great wire-work is still there, and we get a bit of the sensation we had when we first saw it, but the stunts in the original were so tied to the characters that we felt that the fight scenes were tied to the story. Here they feel like set pieces.
What this sequel is missing is passion. The original was directed by the great Ang Lee; this sequel is directed by Woo-Ping Yuen, a skilled director of The Iron Monkey and Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master. They do not work the same. All of Yuen’s efforts go into the elaborate stunts, but Lee is better at incorporating story and action, and while the footwork is there you keep waiting in vein for the heart to emerge.