Reign Of Assassins (Cert 15)
1 Disc (Distributor: Entertainment One) Running Time: 103 minutes
Legend has it that the remains of the mystical Indian monk Bodhi offers great healing properties and will grant the possessor ultimate powers, making it a prized object in the eyes of many. The evil Dark Stone Group – lead by the sinister Wheel King (Wang Xueqi), elderly conjurer Magician (Leon Dai), stoic Lei Bin (Shawn Yue) and lethal female assassin Drizzle (Kelly Lin) – find half of the remains which Drizzle disappears with, earning a bounty on her head decreed by Wheel King. Upon meeting a monk named Wisdom (Li Zonghan) who gives his life to convince her to change her ways, Drizzle has a face transplant and vows to begin a new life. Now known as Zeng Jing (Michelle Yeoh) she is a peaceful fabric trader, who catches the eye of local courier Jiang Ah-Sheng (Jung Woo-sung) and they eventually marry but Dark Stone are closing in on Jing.
Having conquered the bullet ridden action flick and the historical epic, John Woo tries his hand at wu xia although contrary to the promotional materials, Woo only shares a co-director and co-producer credit. The main driving force behind this film is Su Chao-pin, more noted for being a screenplay writer or horror and action dramas. Much like Woo, Su fancied a shot as wu xia and while the visuals are an affectionate throwback to the golden days of “wire fu” epics, the story is a deep human interest story of love, betrayal and fate. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a kung fu version of Woo’s Hollywood effort Face/Off either since the face swapping aspect is more grounded in traditional Chinese folklore despite being a modern feeling plot device.
The courtship between Jing and Ah-Sheng is gentle without being needless frothy or sappy and dealt with in quick time, setting up how Ah-Sheng is a well meaning but non-heroic man while it is his missus who can kill a fly from thirty paces with a meat cleaver! It is when a trip to the bank for the happy couple is interrupted by a gang searching for Bodhi’s body which forces Jing to revert to her former self – albeit without a sword – to send this gang packing with some nifty kung fu that Dark Stone have a cue to Drizzle’s whereabouts, unaware of her change in appearance. Having recruited highly dangerous serial husband killer Turquoise (Barbie Hsu) as Drizzle’s replacement, the new look Dark Stone eventually hunt Jing down, something which she suspected would happen, and this is where the fun truly begins.
The story takes a few remarkable and unexpected twists from here as pasts and futures collide wrapped up with a big ribbon and bow called Karma. It seems no-one can escape the fate that awaits them, crafted by their own hands as they are to eventually learn. But is it too late to repent and change the future? As truths and lies are exposed, the lines are drawn between friend and foes, partners and lovers, with trust and loyalty becoming distant memories. Occasionally, as we head towards the climax, the script starts to stumble upon itself with the various twists and character changes that come from nowhere but one is kept guessing to the very end with only a few unanswered questions – although Wheel King’s motivation for exploiting Bodhi’s miraculous healing powers will probably raise a titter or two!
But this being a wu xia film all disputes are resolved through some good old fashioned sword fights and martial arts punch ups and there are plenty of them to behold here. Despite pushing fifty Michelle Yeoh still moves with her trademark grace and fluidity of someone half her age and continues to look radiant to boot. Even with the thirteen year age difference between her and Kelly Lin, Yeoh doesn’t look like a far fetched choice for the new look Drizzle. The fights are tightly choreographed with a healthy smattering of wife work that is kept marginally realistic for the most part. The up close combat scenes are ferociously fought and the cast are put through their paces with their sword handling skills fully tested. With some scenes taking place either in enclosed spaces or at night one cannot help but think of the Tsui Hark influence while the cinematic flair of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (which also starred Yeoh) is very much in play here to.
Despite being originally created as an action film for Miss Yeoh, she shares the screen time with and is ably supported by her fellow cast including such reliable hands as Wang Xueqi, Leon Dai, Shawn Yue, the rather delightful Barbie Hsu and Korean star Jung Woo-sung, who doesn’t look as out of place as you may think among his Chinese co-stars.
Getting the balance right between story and action is always a headache for films that fall within this genre, and as Ang Lee proved with his aforementioned Oscar winning outing it is possible. Despite a few inherent flaws Reign Of Assassins is another example of how a good story and well placed – and well paced – fight scenes can be married to make for an entertaining opus. Perhaps more ingrained in the cinematic traditions of martial arts storytelling that Ang Lee’s film, this gives you plenty of bang for your buck on both a visual and emotional level.
It’s taken three years for Reign Of Assassins to get to the UK but it was worth the wait, so sit back, grab your snacks and prepare to see some arses well and truly kicked!
Original Mandarin 5.1
Original Mandarin 2.0
Preparing The Story
Challenging The Strongest
Sword Fighting & Magic
Rating – ****
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