There's no doubt that the newly released Netflix original movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword Of Destiny would be received entirely differently if it had been released under a different title. It's a reasonably brisk and enjoyable martial-arts movie full of familiar, famous names. It was directed by a legendary martial-arts choreographer. Its New Zealand location shooting provides some pretty scenery, and the deeply saturated colors are pleasantly intense. It's a solid enough experience for a casual Netflix viewing, for a "What's new on streaming this month?" impulse-watch on a Tuesday night, and it might have found praise if the producers had left that as their sole ambition. (It might have also saved them a public-relations war with theater owners, who've loudly balked at the attempt to bring the film to multiplex screens on the same day as the film's Netflix release.)
But "solid" and "pleasant" aren't nearly enough for a film trying to live up to the reputation of the most successful martial-arts movie of its era, a towering giant that made hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide in initial release, and became the first Mandarin-language film nominated for a best picture Oscar. Sword Of Destiny suffers endlessly by comparison to Ang Lee's groundbreaking 2000 film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, for the comparative smallness of its vision, its visuals, and its budget. (The new film is also all English-language, an apparent bid for commercial appeal that might have been miscalculated.) It's a little unfair to any sequel to use its predecessor as a yardstick rather than considering it on its own merit, but in this case, it's impossible to put the original movie aside. Not just because of the title, but because Sword Of Destiny mimics its predecessor in so many clear and frustrating ways.
Once again, Michelle Yeoh stars as weary martial-arts master Yu Shu Lien, a teacher and philosopher who's deeply concerned with the safety of the legendary sword called Green Destiny. Just as before, she's caught up in a tragic, ill-fated romance, this time with Silent Wolf (Donnie Yen), the man she was once engaged to marry. And while the older couple represses their quiet love out of duty and respect, the younger generation again represses more violent passions out of resentment and pride. When young Wei Fang (spectacular Glee dancer Harry Shum, Jr.) tries to steal the sword for the malicious warlord Hades Dai (Jason Scott Lee), a young woman named Snow Vase (first-time film actor Natasha Liu Bordizzo) interferes while trying to steal the sword for herself. Wei Fang is captured and caged, and the two spend most of the movie glaring love-daggers at each other.
A reduced and demoralized world
The character dynamics aren't the only familiar elements. Screenwriter John Fusco (Young Guns, Thunderheart) sets another major battle in a restaurant where tables are flipped and crockery gets wrecked. The Green Destiny again gets passed from hand to hand, as the McGuffin driving the plot. There's another bitter female mentor on an endless quest to right a past wrong, and another solemn bureaucrat trying to preserve his house's name. Naturally, the film's martial artists remain concerned that their craft is being lost, that honor in the world is waning, and that they're entering a smaller and less deeply felt age.
That last bit feels like a universal theme — what generation hasn't felt like kids these days were messing everything up? — but Sword Of Destiny actually corroborates the older warriors' concerns by presenting a reduced and demoralized world. Each element echoed from Crouching Tiger fades with repetition. The sequel is a smaller film in multiple respects, but the filmmakers haven't set out to make a virtue out of its smallness, instead trying to ape the first film's grandeur on a tighter budget. Too many of the establishing shots are stiff CGI backdrops. The fights are shorter and lack Lee's elegance and grandiose sweep, and the wire-work is kept to a minimum until the climactic battle. And above all, the 90-minute runtime (not counting 10 minutes of credits) doesn't give the characters enough time to stretch out. The Shu Lien / Silent Wolf love story, in particular, gets reduced to a few bare speeches, which makes it feel trifling by comparison with Crouching Tiger's ageless, aching romance.
Sword Of Destiny is strongest where it steps furthest away from its predecessor. The film's best sequence, a nighttime battle on an ice-covered lake, has its combatants skating as much as fighting. Hades Dai is a generic, barely explained threat, but his faction's snake iconography makes for some terrific costumes and masks. The political intrigue in the backdrop is similarly underdeveloped, but in the few moments where it becomes relevant, it gives the sense of a larger world where the tectonic movements of an empire are enabling more significant changes than the question of who owns a famous sword.
And the film's few nods to humor stand out. The sequel's restaurant battle recalls Jen's in Crouching Tiger, but it also draws on other martial-arts traditions, as a gang of two-bit mercenaries challenges Silent Wolf, and a few lone warriors with wildly different fighting styles and personalities step up to defend him. Silent Wolf's clear boredom with the mercenaries' lack of skill, and his rakish smirk when he pulls off a particularly contemptuous move against them, suggest a looser, more playful film. Shum's performance strikes a similar, though less original note; his hipshot swagger and smoldering sullenness recalls his original Crouching Tiger equivalent, the bandit Lo. But at least his banter with Bordizzo helps lift the film's weight.
It's hard to operate in the shadow of a classic
Like Crouching Tiger, the story told in Sword Of Destiny comes from Du Lu Wang's five-book "Crane-Iron Series," and it stands to reason it would continue many of the first installment's themes, visuals, and melancholy romantic fixations. The problem isn't necessarily in the content — it's in the execution, and the high bar set 16 years ago by Lee's arthouse hit. Perversely, Lee's previous lack of experience in martial-arts films helped Crouching Tiger; he came in without feeling a need to live up to familiar tropes and rhythms, and wound up directing the film more like an arthouse drama and a dance film than like a conventional fight film. The film's slow, dreamy rhythms and unconventional fight sequences helped make it distinctive.
In the opening moments of Sword Of Destiny, Shu Lien frets over an aphorism that says a scholar will be remembered for five years after death, but a swordsman's legacy will linger for 20. "This is meant as praise," she says, "but I believe it to be a curse." The curse of Sword Of Destiny is that Crouching Tiger still hasn't been forgotten. It's difficult to bring something new and different to a well-established genre. It's harder still to operate in the shadow of a classic. Inevitably, Sword Of Destiny is overshadowed by the film it's trying too hard to copy.