Directors: John Woo & Su Chao-pin
Screenplay: Su Chao-pin
Starring: Michelle Yeoh, Woo-sung Jung, Xueqi Wang, Shawn Yue
Producers: Terence Chang, Shaoye Shi, John Woo
Running Time: 103 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
The wuxia (martial hero) genre has been a staple of Chinese cinema since the format's introduction to the country and has stayed so ever since, helped largely by the huge popularity of the output of the Shaw Brothers studio that shaped the genre. In the year 2000, Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon brought the period wuxia into great popularity in the West, with the film winning numerous awards and helping pave the way for crossover successes for similarly beautiful romantic action dramas such as Hero and House of Flying Daggers. This trend died out after about 5 years and, in Western eyes at least, the wuxia genre has slipped back to realm of 'fan only' straight to DVD titles. There haven't been many truly notable period wuxia films for a while and the martial arts titles that have found success have more recently been from Thailand (with Ong Bak and Warrior King) and Indonesia (with The Raid). Looking to bring wuxia back in fashion this month is Reign of Assassins. Teaming Crouching Tiger's own Michelle Yeoh with Hong Kong action's most well known director John Woo (although he's only co-director and producer here), the film tries to recapture the glory days by fusing romance, intrigue and physics-defying combat.
Yeoh's character Drizzle/Zeng Jing actually begins the film played by Kelly Lin. She is part of a team of assassins (the Dark Stone gang) that kill prime minister Zhang and his son Renfeng in order to steal half of the mummified remains of an Indian Buddhist Monk which supposedly hold the secret to the world's greatest martial art skills. Drizzle gets her hands on these remains and runs away with them. After killing a monk she becomes ashamed of her actions though and, in a bid to live a normal life, she gets a special operation to change her face (to Michelle Yeoh's). Things go well for a while and she falls in love with courier Ah-Sheng (Woo-sung Jung) so they get married. Her past eventually catches up with her though and the Dark Stone gang discover her new identity. After bargaining with them to save her and her husband's life she works with them to find the second half of the monk's remains and along the way learns some secrets about Ah-Sheng which further muddy the waters.
This isn't a bad entry to the wuxia genre and rekindled the fire of love for them in my eyes (not that I ever stopped loving martial arts movies). It isn't however anywhere near as good as those aforementioned titles or the classics that inspired them. The film looks glossy enough but can't compete with the visual splendour of Hero and the action scenes are decent but pale in comparison with the inventiveness of Jackie Chan's 80's output or the brutally intense action of The Raid. It's lazy to simply compare this to such classics of the action genre, but there isn't enough originality on offer to not do so.
In terms of storytelling and drama, Reign of Assassins gets off to a shaky start too, with heavy exposition clumsily delivering a silly tale of important corpses and meticulous face-changing operations in ancient China. Once the backstory is dispensed with and Michelle Yeoh appears however, the film does find its feet. Things are kept a little more simple (up until some preposterous twists at the end) and the focus is kept on establishing the relationship between Zeng Jing and Ah-Sheng in amongst all the fighting and corpse-theft. That isn't to say the relationship is a strong one though. The film lacked true drama for me in the final scenes as I never really bought into the film's key relationship. I don't know whether to blame a lack of chemistry between the leads, the script or the directors, but when things get tough between the two of them at the end I didn't really care, which made the film suffer.
This is a shame, because when the film works it is a fun ride with its heart in the right place. There is plenty of action to keep martial arts junkies happy and although there is a bit of CGI assistance here and there it's never distracting. As preposterous as the story is, there is enough there to keep the film moving along too. Unfortunately, it's just a little too bland and familiar to truly excite though. I can't see it resurrecting the glory days of wuxia in the West, but it's nice to see that stalwarts like Yeoh and Woo still have a bit of the old magic.
Reign of Assassins is out now on DVD in the UK, released by eOne. The copy I saw was a film-only screener so I can't comment on the picture or sound quality. According to the press material the DVD will include a number of featurettes.