You don’t have to look much further beyond the title of Netflix’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny to see the first problem with the sequel to Ang Lee’s beloved 2000 martial-arts film. Sword of Destiny, which arrives simultaneously in theaters and on Netflix this weekend, feels in every way like a knock-off. Yes, the film is fortunately directed by Yuen Woo-ping, the legendary choreographer who worked on Lee’s original film and many other landmarks of the wuxia (Chinese martial-arts) genre. But rather than building on the foundation laid by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the new film chooses to replicate the exact same story beats of its predecessor while trying, and failing, to top its fight sequences with some ill-advised computer assistance.
This is only where the flaws begin. Even though Sword of Destiny was released in China first and is clearly geared toward a global audience, its predominantly Chinese cast speaks English throughout, as opposed to the Mandarin of the original. Michelle Yeoh was the only member of the original cast to return for the sequel, playing the mournful Yu Shu Lien, and still guarding the legendary “Green Destiny” sword that caused so much trouble 16 years ago. She’s surrounded with a new ensemble, though you wouldn’t know it from the plot: Everyone’s after the sword, and a romance plays out between two young rivals jousting to capture it. With all of the first film’s startling beauty and emotional subtlety lost, even Sword of Destiny’s established stars look uninspired in their roles.
The original film’s Chow Yun-fat, Zhang Ziyi, and Chang Chen have been replaced by a new grab bag of talent: The Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen plays Silent Wolf, a veteran warrior from Shu Lien’s past. The Glee cast member Harry Shum Jr. is Wei-Fang, a young bandit after the sword to repay a debt to the gangster Hades (Jason Scott Lee). The newcomer Natasha Liu Bordizzo is Snow Vase, a fighter under the tutelage of Shu Lien who becomes Wei-Fang’s romantic rival. They do their best with John Fusco’s limited script, but Sword of Destiny isn’t overly concerned with diving deep into its characters’ motivations. Everyone wants the sword, everyone’s nursing some haunting secret or past misdeed that they explain in voice-over as yet another fight sequence plays out, and every confrontation ends in an elaborate sword fight.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was made along similar lines—lots of wire-work fight sequences structured around a fairly simple story—but it struck deeper emotional chords, paralleling the story of two older masters who have achieved greatness at the cost of admitting their feelings for each other with two younger, wilder figures linked by their own doomed romance. It was a landmark moment for Western audiences, of course, who had barely been exposed to the wuxia genre before Crouching Tiger’s success, and ushered in wider appreciation for the form. But everything that made Lee’s film feel distinct is missing in the sequel.
Sword of Destiny, shot by Bryan Singer’s cinematographer Newton Thomas Siegel, is occasionally beautiful: Some fights take place against sweeping vistas of the Chinese countryside, and one climactic battle plays out on a frozen lake. But these set pieces are frequently marred by unnecessary CGI embellishment—the last thing Yuen Woo-ping’s still-extraordinary choreography needs. Taken on their own, the fights in Sword of Destiny are mostly top-notch, even if there’s little else in the story to elevate them beyond dazzling feats of athleticism.
The question remains as to why this project exists. Netflix’s approach to television has been a mix of fascinating creator-driven projects and cheap revivals of established brands, so perhaps its film division will work along similar lines. After all, last year’s Beasts of No Nation, directed by Cary Fukunaga, was a worthy and powerful exploration of the lives of child soldiers in Africa. Meanwhile, Sword of Destiny trades entirely on the name of its forbear, and everything about its execution, down to the decision to shoot English-language dialogue, feels artless.
There is one similarity it shares with Beasts of No Nation, however: The biggest draw for Sword of Destiny is its visuals, which makes it especially peculiar that it’s coming out on Netflix. Though it is getting a small cinematic release (about a dozen IMAX screens across the country), it will primarily be consumed at home, since most theater chains refuse to screen a film that comes out simultaneously on a streaming network. Since the only way to really enjoy Sword of Destiny is to drink in the gorgeous scenery, hopefully your TV has enough pixels. Otherwise, you’d be better suited kicking back on the couch and reliving the brilliance of the original Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon instead.
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