Sixteen years after the original, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is back… On Netflix! That’s the beautiful irony of the Netflix business model: It’s partly able to stay relevant by reviving properties from decades past. But unlike say, Fuller House, a chopsocky sword fight movie is something I might actually watch without being forced to at gunpoint. In fact, Netflix might have been the ideal medium all along. Martial arts movies, coming from a tradition of cheap grindhouse screenings and VHS, seem ideal for the lower commitment, more passive viewing experience of Netflix. Not to mention that Sword of Destiny‘s hyper-saturated cinematography is the perfect showcase for your new 4K TV’s capabilities (at least, I imagine it is, watching it on my 2009-era LCD). In a lot of ways, Sword of Destiny is just the original without delusions of grandeur.
The first Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, directed by Ang Lee and released in 2000, was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, and won four (Best Foreign Language Film, Best Art Direction, Best Original Score, and Best Cinematography). At the time it felt like the natural evolution of the kind über-stylized action movie popularized by John Woo, et al. You got flying doves? Well, we got flying people! In retrospect, now that the action movie pendulum has largely swung back to gritty, grounded, thumpy productions like The Raid, Crouching Tiger feels like the previous paradigm’s high-water mark. There was always at least one kid who couldn’t handle the idea of GI Joes being able to fly during backyard action figure battles (unswayed by the jetpack defense), and in the same way, Crouching Tiger‘s brand of wire-fu feels like a litmus test to separate concrete from magical thinkers. Bro, do you even make believe? I admit that even I have some trouble finding an internal logic to the action when Crouching Tiger characters start fighting on cliff’s edges or the roofs of tall buildings. I’m supposed to be worried they’ll fall? I just saw them fly!
If grunge killed glam rock in the martial arts movie world, Sword of Destiny is a well-timed tribute band; you wouldn’t want everyone to start wearing spandex again, but it’s fun for a night. Crouching Tiger‘s original choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping directs this sequel, which is about a mystical sword, though I won’t bore you with much summary since it doesn’t really matter anyway. The other big difference is that this one’s in English. It feels like it should be dubbed, but isn’t, yet the pan-Asian cast (made up of Australians, Costa Ricans, Chinese Americans, Hawaiian Chinese…) speaking English in a panoply of accents gives it that same universal exoticism. Like the original, the sequel combines martial arts explo-cinema with high art production design in a way that feels like some kind of B-movie interpretive dance, and with Yuen at the helm, it leans a little more to the B-movie side.
Which, to me, is a good thing. Ang Lee has a tendency to be… how shall I put this… a little up his own ass. Yuen knows he ain’t winning any Oscars for this, which allows him to have a little more fun. The fact that Sword of Destiny knows it’s a little silly makes the brilliant choreography and cinematography that much easier to enjoy. This feels like it’s more for the Wu-Tang than for the Academy. MacGuffins are just MacGuffins — an excuse for a whacked out sword fight — that you can enjoy without wondering about symbolism and “what does it all mean?”
No, none of this high-wire flying swordplay stuff is new. That Sword of Destiny can just be its own movie without the burden of being a showcase piece for a certain style allows style to take its proper supporting role. Style is just a hammer, a tool, and now Yuen can be free to use that hammer to build something, without having to frame it and mount it on the wall. It’s… nice.
Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.