Come for the astounding fight choreography in this Wuxia epic. Just don't stick around for the confusing storyline or functional performances.
Few films this year will swoop and whoosh with quite as much vim as martial arts melodrama Reign of Assassins. It's perhaps one of the swoopiest, whooshiest films to hit UK cinemas since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon slayed mainstream audiences with its exotic combination of romance and combat back in 2000.
Ang Lee's Wuxia fairy tale laid the foundations for an entire slate of crossover hits such as Zhang Yimou's picturesque Hero and House Of Flying Daggers. And yet it's unlikely John Woo and Su Chao-pin's contribution to the genre will have quite the same impact as its spiritual cousins.
That's not for lack of ambition, something this stirring epic has in spades. Assailants attack. Blades clash. Sorcery abounds. Reign Of Assassins is nothing if not a gorgeous and rousing adventure that bristles with agile swordsmanship and wire fu spectacle. If only the emotional heart of the film could beat with the same intensity as its breathtaking skirmishes.
Set sometime in Ancient China, the film tells the story of a ruthless assassin called Drizzle, a member of the feared Dark Stone Gang, who breaks ties with her murderous colleagues, undergoes a mysterious and magical procedure to disguise her appearance and disappears into a new life of domestic mundanity. Sadly for Drizzle, she also holds the key to locating the whereabouts of a dead monk's enchanted remains, and it's not long before the Dark Stone Gang are back on the scene and on the hunt for the enigmatic artefact.
The plotting is, of course, ridiculous and occasionally confusing, punctuated by story beats that take suspension of disbelief into new and rather maverick levels of craziness. If anything, there's almost too much going on, and the execution isn't particularly graceful. Perhaps the most risible moment is a sub-plot involving the absent genitalia of the aforementioned dead monk. Those looking for some stimulating eunuch chat (and who isn't?) are certainly in for a treat.
What's more, the performances, including that of Wuxia veteran Michelle Yeoh, are strictly functional. The screenplay is so daft in parts that it would take a real powerhouse cast to truly bring it alive. Sadly, significant chunks of the line-up just aren't up to the task.
And yet none of this matters. The fight sequences are astounding and completely justify John Woo's involvement in the project. Woo is here credited as “co-director” although his name is listed first and he's clearly the star of the show. The moves are fast. The choreography is tight. The actors glide across the frame with grace and power. Every lunge, every parry, every manoeuvre matters.
Thank goodness. When the film isn't engaged in all-out fisticuffs, the pace more often than not grinds to a mind-crushing, face-drainingly depressing halt. Reign of Assassins has a fire in its belly, but the film sure as hell drags its feet on its way to the good stuff.
This one's been on the shelf for a couple of years. UK release feels less of an event, more of an afterthought.
The superbly staged and utterly relentless combat scenes are completely worth the wait.
It's no Crouching Tiger, but nonetheless Woo and Chao-pin make a formidable combo.