Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2: Sword of Destiny


Michelle Yeoh is still beautiful and badass.

Michelle Yeoh is still beautiful and badass.

(2016) Martial Arts (Netflix) Michelle Yeoh, Donnie Yen, Harry Shum Jr., Jason Scott Lee, Eugenia Yuan, Juju Chan, Chris Pang, Darryl Quon, Roger Yuan, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Dev Kingsley, Woon Young Park, Andrew Stehlin, Gary Young, Tim Wong, Sharon Zhang, Kevvy Sing-Hoi Ng, David T. Lim, Alex Shi, Thanh Van Ngo, Shuya Chang. Directed by Woo-Ping Yuen

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, released in 2000 in the United States, remains to this day the highest grossing foreign language film to be released in the United States. The Ang Lee-directed martial arts classic combines a heart-wrenching love story with innovative martial arts battle sequences making extensive use of wire work to wow audiences of the time.

It has taken 16 years for the sequel to be made, loosely based on the final book of the five-book series by Du Lu Wang that inspired the first film, but the director responsible for those amazing fight scenes is at the helm here and while the absence of Lee and star Chow Yun-Fat are keenly felt (particularly Fat, whose presence hovers over the film throughout like a sad-eyed ghost) the movie surprisingly stands on its own two feet.

Nearly two decades have passed since the events of the first film and Yu Shu Lien (Yeoh), the deadly assassin and swordsman of the first film has removed herself from the world, mourning her lover and feeling keenly the weight of the changing nature of the world. She is called from her lonely isolation to attend the funeral of an old friend, one charged with storing and protecting the Green Destiny, Li Mu Bai’s famous sword. When sneak thief Tiefang (Shum) is caught attempting to steal the sword by house guest Snow Vase (Bordizzo), Yu realizes that bandit king Hades Die (Lee) and his blind enchantress (E. Yuan) are behind it.

Snow Vase, realizing the identity of Yu, asks her to become her teacher and Yu agrees. However, Hades Western Lotus army is dead set on acquiring the sword for their master and Yu knows the compound will need additional protection. She hires a group of six mercenaries, led by the enigmatic Silent Wolf (Yen) with whom Yu has a particularly convoluted past. It seems that the two were lovers before she was with Li Mu Bai, and that she believed Silent Wolf had been killed in a fight with Hades Die many years earlier. It seems the rumors of his death had been exaggerated.

Despite his deception, there is clearly heat between the two former lovers while Snow Vase is developing a relationship with Tiefang. The two relationships will be tested as the ruthless Hades and his evil enchantress will stop at nothing to acquire the one sword that would make him all-powerful and rule the martial arts world with an iron fist.

I went into this movie with a little bit of trepidation, fully expecting it to be a blatant cash grab knock-off, profiting off of the name of a classic movie. I was pleasantly surprised that the movie captures the melancholy tone of the first film, delivering on the martial arts sequences as well as the emotional resonance. While it isn’t quite to the level of that film, the sequel is still a very worthwhile successor.

Much of the credit must go to Yeoh, the lone returnee of the acting cast here. Her character is the emotional center of the film, dealing with loss with dignity and honor. She is a mighty warrior, yes, able to strike fear in the hearts of strong men and garner their respect, but she is also feminine and certainly still beautiful and graceful at 53. This is perhaps her signature role and the movie is worth seeing just for her.

Yen, one of the biggest and most bankable stars in China, fares less well here but to be fair his character isn’t as well drawn. Silent Wolf is meant to be enigmatic, but he is so enigmatic that some of his motivations ring false and while his fight scenes are some of the best in the film, he is relegated to pretty much a supporting character when he should have been one of the leads.

Like the first film, the cinematography is breathtaking, although there is a lot more CGI here of crumbling ruins, temples and towers that give the movie a kind of a Lord of the Rings feel. I’m not sure how much of this was filmed in China – iMDB lists the filming locations as China and New Zealand – but there is something about the natural beauty of China that speaks to me.

The problems here are that there are too many characters who aren’t fleshed out very much beyond colorful nicknames. While some of them have definite personalities, they are little more than a single trait with a body attached and they’re there mainly to get into spectacular fights with somebody. That’s all well and good but one cares more for the outcome of a fight when one cares for the people doing the fighting.

This is playing on Netflix and on a smattering of IMAX screens across the country. Because it’s getting a simultaneous release on Netflix, the larger theater chains refused to carry this on their IMAX screens, so in places like Orlando there are no IMAX screenings for the film available which is a crying shame – I suspect this would be amazing in IMAX. Hopefully at some point it might show up in some form on IMAX but until then most of us will have to content themselves seeing it at home on Netflix. Even that is well worth the effort as this is a wonderful and worthy follow-up to a classic.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous cinematography. Recreates the melancholy feel of the first film. Some incredible martial arts sequences. Michelle Yeoh.
REASONS TO STAY: A little less graceful than the first film. Too many characters.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots of martial arts violence as well as a scene of brief partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The role of Jen, played by Shuya Chang here, was played by Ziyi Zhang in the first film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 18% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Empire of Silver
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Trumbo

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Ninja Assassin


Ninja Assassin

Oh, I've seen Fire and I've seen Rain...

(2009) Martial Arts Action (Warner Brothers) Rain, Naomie Harris, Ben Miles, Sho Kosugi, Rick Yune, Randall Duk Kim, Sung Kang, Kylie Goldstein. Directed by James McTeigue

There are certain movies that you really can’t complain about. For example, this one; the title tells you exactly what kind of movie you’re going to get. You can’t watch it and then bitch about the plot and the acting. The whole point of the movie is to have guys in black pajamas slice and dice each other and fly through the air like moths. Really, that’s the only standard a movie should be held to in reality. Still, one can dream of a little more to a movie than that, right?

Raizo (Rain) is a lethal assassin, trained from childhood (some would say abused) in the art of killing people silently and unseen by the Ozunu clan, the deadliest assassins in Japan. Their compound, high in the mountains of Japan, has never been seen by an outsider and the mere knowledge of their existence can mean death in a most painful and bloody way. Laughing at their rumored existence, well, that’s just plain stupid as a few yakuza toughs find out in the opening sequence.

However, Raizo has a bone to pick with his clan; they executed his girlfriend (Goldstein) in a most gruesome manner (which would tend to piss anybody off) and now they’re all after his ass. Raizo, the deadliest and nastiest of them, is out to topple their empire, aided by a couple of thumb-twiddling Interpol cops, Mika (Harris) and Ryan (Miles). However, Raizo has violated a cardinal rule of the ninja – something akin to rule #1, don’t talk about Fight Club. Now the clan’s leader, Ozunu (Kosugi) and his number two son Takeshi (Yune) have a real need to dismember Raizo and you just know it’s going to end badly for somebody.

This was produced by the Washowski Brothers (the Matrix trilogy) and directed by McTeigue, who previously helmed V for Vendetta which I think is a much better film than this. Part of the problem of a movie about ninja assassins is the whole conceit that they melt in and out of the shadows; by necessity the movie must be then underlit to provide said shadows, which makes seeing the fight sequences difficult at times. That’s a shame because some of the choreography is pretty damn good.

Yes, I know that you’re not supposed to talk about the acting in a movie like this (I did mention it earlier) but I do have to at least point out that I found Harris unbelievable as an Interpol agent (do Interpol agents scream like little girls whenever an assassin shows up?) and that the acting is a bit stiff in general. Rain, the Korean pop star, is more adept at dancing and singing than he is at slicing and dicing, but he performs solidly enough in his fight sequences. He showed immense potential in Speed Racer as a double-dealing race car driver which isn’t delivered on here. Harris was in the first two Pirates of the Caribbean movies and was far more effective in those, so I know both of them are capable of better than they delivered here.

Sho Kosugi is one of the most revered and beloved figures in Japanese action films (particularly of the samurai variety) of the last 30 years. While known mostly to Asian cinema aficionados in the States, he brings a certain gravitas here that is quite frankly wasted. He’s well into his 60s but he can still kick patootey without breaking much of a sweat. Personally, I think he’s worth seeing even in a movie that isn’t.

Something tells me that this movie was a victim of studio over-involvement. A last minute re-write was called for and delivered in a two and a half day turn-around which allowed the movie to make its tight delivery date after which brilliant studio executives promptly delayed its release for almost a year. Really, when dealing with ninja movies it would be a wise studio executive that doesn’t get too involved with the nuts and bolts; the simpler, the better in terms of plot for these kinds of things and its best just to let your fight choreographer and director just go to town; this movie is at its best when they do just that.

WHY RENT THIS: There are some very fine martial arts sequences here. It’s always a pleasure to see Kosugi, one of the underrated stars of Asian cinema.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The acting is as wooden as it gets. There are times that the story drags, particularly in the middle. Penalty for overuse of flashbacks. Too many fight scenes lose their effectiveness because they’re badly lit.

FAMILY VALUES: As you might expect from a movie of this nature, there’s a boatload of violence and a smattering of foul language. Definitely for older teens and above.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Babylon 5” creator J. Michael Straczynski did the re-write of the original script which was, in an unusual move, approved by Warner Brothers without notes and shipped into the actor’s hands within a week.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray has a nice feature on ninjas and the mythology behind them.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $61.6M on a production budget of $40M; the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Intermission

Daredevil


Daredevil

The man without fear...of red leather.

(20th Century Fox) Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Colin Farrell, Michael Clarke Duncan, Jon Favreau, Scott Terra, Ellen Pompeo, Joe Pantoliano, David Keith, Leland Orser, Erick Avari, Derrick O’Connor. Directed by Mark Steven Johnson

In the wake of the success of X-Men and Spider-Man, the rights to a boatload of Marvel superheroes were sold to several studios eager to cash in on the superhero craze. This led to a glut of hero movies in the middle pat of the last decade wth some of the releases being better than others.

Matt Murdock (Affleck) is a lawyer who was blinded in an accident as a young boy (Terra). His father Jack “The Devil” Murdock (Keith) is an ex-prize fighter trying to raise his boy as best he can on his own, desperately hoping he won’t make the same mistakes he did and elevate himself from a Hells Kitchen he could never escape himself.

Matt is bright enough although he gets picked on by the local bullies because he won’t fight, at the behest of his father. Young Matt believes his father to be an honest dockworker, but Jack has been picking up extra cash working as hired muscle for a local crime boss. When Matt accidentally witnesses his father’s other line of work, he runs blindly away, and winds up being dowsed in the face by the proverbial toxic liquid.

The result is that the boy is blinded for life, but the compensation is that his other senses sharpen significantly. As a matter of fact, he uses sound as a kind of “sonar” to allow him to “see” images. Tired of being picked on, he begins to work out, train himself to fight. In the meantime, Jack is shocked into going back on the straight and narrow and takes up fighting again and does pretty well. However, when he refuses to throw a fight, he is murdered.

Years later, Murdock works alongside his partner Foggy Nelson (Favreau) in a Hells Kitchen law firm that specializes in taking on the cases of the underdog against the corrupt and the untouchable. It doesn’t pay very well – often the poor clients pay in fish or some other form of barter – but Murdock is able to sleep nights. Well, he would if he were sleeping; instead, he goes out to exact justice that he can’t obtain as a lawyer as a costumed vigilante known as Daredevil. The police, predictably, pooh-pooh his existence but a lone reporter, Ben Urich (Pantoliano) pursues the story with the zeal of Woodward and Bernstein.

Murdock meets Elektra Natchios (Garner), the daughter of a billionaire, in a coffee shop and falls for her instantly. The attraction is mutual; she also has superb martial arts training and this is one of those rare courtships that take place by beating each other up. Elektra’s dad (Avari) is tied to the new crime boss, Wilson Fisk (Duncan) a.k.a. the Kingpin of Crime, and is anxious to get out and retire. Fisk doesn’t like people backing out on him and hires an Irish hit man named Bullseye (Farrell) to take care of business.

Bullseye has the uncanny knack of accuracy. Anything he throws hurls or shoots hits its target without fail. When Murdock discovers what’s going on, he immediately changes into his Daredevil guise and rushes out to protect the father of the woman he loves. Unfortunately, he gets there too late to prevent Natchios’ death, but just in time for Elektra to mistakenly believe him responsible. He also manages to avoid one of Bullseye’s projectiles, earning the obsessive enmity of Bullseye in the process.

Director Johnson was woefully inexperienced when he was given this project to direct and in many ways, it shows. What also shows is the reverence and respect in which he holds the source material. It becomes a two-edged sword; some of the elements he wants to bring from the comic book series (such as Daredevil’s uncanny agility) don’t translate well, although at the time it was released I thought it looked fine to be honest. After watching it at home recently, I found the wire work to look unnatural and there is quite a bit of it.

Affleck was uncomfortable playing a costumed superhero and it is very apparent. When he’s Matt Murdock, for the most part he’s fine. However, there are times as Murdock when he looks soulful and a bit sorry for himself; that just doesn’t jive too well with the costumed vigilante that Daredevil is and who Matt Murdock is on the comic book page. There, Murdock is stubborn and principled and prone to leaping where angels fear to tread – he is literally without fear. Here, Affleck plays him as stubborn and principled and a bit of a whiner. It’s not a bad performance but it isn’t the right one.

Garner was magnificent as Elektra here, which makes the spin-off film she did on the character all the more mystifying in how truly awful it was. She makes Elektra passionate and real, suspicious and lethal. The comic book character is one of the most compelling in the Marvel universe and while she doesn’t quite reach those standards, Garner does do a fine job in bringing her to life.

Duncan and Farrell both look like they’re having the time of their lives in the villain roles, with Farrell often looking up with a boyish smile like he just discovered its Christmas morning. Few actors today can play villains with the kind of relish that Farrell brings to the role. Duncan is far too jovial as a person to make Fisk as menacing as he is on the comic book pages, but he manages to make him memorable nonetheless.

Fox has had several of the Marvel properties under its banners (including the ongoing X-Men and the Fantastic Four) and while the movie was a success for the most part, it never achieved the popularity or acclaim to make a sequel likely – in fact, Affleck has stated flat-out that he would not consider playing the role again, or any other superhero role for that matter.

In any case, the movie is entertaining enough to recommend it and the soundtrack with its loud guitar-oriented rock is one of the better movie soundtracks of the last decade, and it made a star of Evanescence, which may or may not be a bad thing depending on your view of Evanescence (good thing in my book). If you’re looking for something to transcend the genre, keep on moving. If you’re looking for something that will keep you interested and invested for 90 minutes, you’ve found your movie.

WHY RENT THIS: There are times when Affleck is effective as Matt Murdock. The supporting cast is excellent. The filmmakers hold the source material in high regard and utilize a lot of elements that will make Daredevil fans smile. The soundtrack is great.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The overuse of wirework makes the fight scenes look just awful. Affleck spends too much time looking soulful and trying to evoke pathos; the Matt Murdock I know doesn’t feel nearly as sorry for himself.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of comic book violence and some sensuality, but nothing too graphic.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The budget for the movie was initially set at $50 million, but after the success of Spider-Man Fox upped the budget to $80 million.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray includes several music videos from the soundtrack, “Men Without Fear: Creating Daredevil” which focuses on the creative aspects of the comic series and “Beyond Hell’s Kitchen” which details the challenges and tribulations on getting the movie made.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Revolutionary Road