Starring Michelle Yeoh, Jung Woo-Sung, Kelly Lin, Barbie Hsu, Shawn Yue, Xueqi Wang, Leon Dai
Fight Choreography by Stephen Tung
Directed by John Woo and Su Chao-pin
Michelle Yeoh has been steadily working in front of the camera for years ever since Yes, Madam, and she’s had a tremendously good run of films. On the opposite side of that spectrum John Woo has been floundering around Hollywood after such a stellar career in Hong Kong, and really only churned out one decent film, Face/Off. Surprise, surprise, everything changed when he returned to Hong Kong and made the kick-ass 2 film epic Red Cliff (you can read my thoughts on this repeating situation here). Now with this newfound currency John returns to wuxia films with Reign of Assassins.
The film follows Drizzle (Lin) a member of the dreaded Dark Stone, a group of some of the most deadly Assassins ever assembled. Included in her group is The Magician (Dai), Lei Bin (Yue) and their leader the Wheel King (Wang). They are on a mission for the Wheel King to retrieve the mummified remains of Bodhi, the Indian monk who began what would become kung-fu. It is said that whomever controls the remains can wield untold martial arts power. Now, the remains are split in two, and one half is being held by Prime Minister Zhang and his son Renfang. Both are attacked and killed, and Drizzle steals the remains and flees from her own group to her mentor Wisdom, who has decided to become a monk. He is able to enlighten Drizzle about her own evil ways, and is able to turn her away from violence. She hides the remains of Bodhi and has a face change operation that changes her from the beautiful actress Kelly Lin to the just as beautiful actress Michelle Yeoh. Now that’s the way plastic surgery should be done! Now going under the name of Zeng Jing, Drizzle tries to lead the life of a simply cloth merchant. She meets and falls in love with a courier, and gets married (Woo-Sung) in comical scene of romance that might make you think this is a wuxia rom com…
…and then you remember the title of the film, and things go to hell quickly after a fateful trip to the bank, and suddenly the Dark Stone know about Zeng and her husband, and Zeng finds that she must deal with the Assassins and her replacement, the crazy-as-hell Turquoise (Hsu) who still want the remains of the Bodhi, and Zeng must fight and win or lose everything good she has gained in her new life, but the situation isn’t as cut and dried as she thinks it is…
Reign of Assassins continues the return to form for John Woo, who was a consultant for director Su Chao-Pin but consults so much that he earned the credit as a co-director. Surprisingly there aren’t that many sets if you actually count them, as the locations are relegated to a few spots. The camera work is well done, and does a good job of following the action. The story is mostly good except for one giant plot twist that hits after the mid-point of the film that no real clues were provided for before it is revealed, and also the story explains how the Assassins find out that Drizzle is in town, but not how they know she is Zeng Jing. It seems they just magically know. We also get into the life, very briefly, of one of the Assassins, but it doesn’t go anywhere, and ends abruptly so the result, which is supposed to garner some sort of emotion, doesn’t garner any emotional payoff at all.
The actors do a great job, and it’s great to see Michelle Yeoh as Zeng Ling. She portrays the conflicted, yet kind, but always dangerous Zeng Jing with depth to see her want of a peaceful life conflict at times with the killer she used to be. Jung Woo-sung is a great contrast to Yeoh, as he brings a playfulness to the role of her future husband Jiang Ah-sheng, and he truly has some funny moments. I really can’t go further without mentioning Barbie Hsu, who plays the craziest evil bitch this side of Fatal Attraction, plays Turquoise with a sense of fun as she channels an inner crazy person even as she is in various stages of undress (she gets naked a lot, but they don’t show anything, so calm it down, ya’ll). You’ll cheer when you see her get her comeuppance.
The fights are good, but not great except for the fight that comes when the Big Twist is revealed. Unfortunately it isn’t a fight that involves Michelle Yeoh. The fights are mostly swordplay and no real hand to hand, but that’s to be expected from a wire-assisted film like this. This more about style rather than application, so the fights look good, and are fast enough, but it’s just missing that visceral impact. The best fight choreography finds the best balance between “screen fighting” and reality (at least to me) which is why I’ve never been too keen on wire-harness films (Woo-Ping is able to find this balance even with a lot of wire-assisted fights).
Reign of Assassins is a good film, but a few lapses in story logic and some of the fight choreography keep it from being a truly great experience, but Michelle Yeoh still shows she’s got “it”.
(On a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best):
CHOREOGRAPHY: (8) Not the greatness it could have been with the exception of one fight. It tries too hard to try to be a Crouching Tiger kind of fight choreography with John Woo photography rather than trying to find its own creative voice. All of the fights are still well staged and performed, however.
STUNTWORK: (5) Nothing much here. Everyone is adequate, but the wirework is pretty basic. Nothing spectacular here.
STAR POWER: (8) Michelle Yeoh continues to do good work and Jung Woo-sung (The Good, The Bad, The Weird, The Warrior) easily holds his own. John Woo also continues his comeback.
FINAL GRADE: (8) A good Michelle Yeoh film that just misses that mark of greatness by a little bit, but her scenes with Jung Woo-sung are the best parts of the film, and makes it worth taking a look.