It’s been 15 years since the martial-arts masterpiece Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon became an unlikely box-office phenomenon. Thanks to its epic sense of romantic yearning and exhilarating wire-work fight sequences, Ang Lee’s east-meets-west Hong Kong import became the top-grossing foreign film of all time – a title it still holds, by the way. Now, a decade and a half later, comes the long-awaited sequel, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (available now on Netflix), a follow-up that might have played better if it didn’t take so long to get here.
Michelle Yeoh returns as the noble warrior Yu Shu Lien, the sole connection in the cast to the 2000 original. She’s still a badass, but she’s now living in solitude like a “forgotten ghost,” mourning the death of her beloved Li Mu Bai (played by Chow Yun-Fat in first film). It’s a time of warring clans, and Yeoh travels through dangerous lands brimming with assassins to pay her respects to the late Li Mu Bai’s family. While there, a thief from the deadly West Lotus clan attempts to steal her fallen beloved’s infamous sword, the Green Destiny. As in the first Crouching Tiger, this masked burglar tiptoes as weightlessly as Fred Astaire across the terra cotta rooftops. And even after 15 long years, the gravity-defying wizardry of wire-work master Yuen Woo-Ping (the wu-xia fight choreographer in the original, promoted to director here), takes your breath away. It’s a shame the rest of the soap-opera story doesn’t measure up to its stunts.
With Yeoh’s help, a beautiful young woman named Snow Vase (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) captures the handsome thief (Harry Shum, Jr.). She then asks Yeoh’s Yu if she will take her on as an apprentice. Meanwhile, the West Lotus crew scheme to get the sword and Yu gathers a ragtag band of martial-arts mercenaries with names like “The Flying Blade of Shantung,” “Thunder Fist Chan,” and “Silver Dart Shi,” who are led by Donnie Yen’s quietly brooding “Silent Wolf.” This dirty half-dozen comes together in one of the film’s most thrilling action showstoppers as Yen (forever a legend for his battles with Jet Li in the 1992 classic, Once Upon a Time in China II) takes on countless goons at a tavern, snapping their ankles in the style of a kid playing a game of hopscotch. The table is set for the third-act West Lotus showdown.
While Sword of Destiny looks tremendous and the fight scenes are giddy fun, you can’t help but get the sensation that something is missing. There isn’t a moment like the one in the swaying tree tops from the original that transports you and makes you feel like you’re witnessing something you’ve never seen before. It’s the definition of solid. Although wire-work fight scenes had been done for well before Ang Lee staged and shot them, for a lot of us it was crazy and fresh and so dazzling you almost didn’t believe your eyes. Sword of Destiny is still thrilling and in some instances (like a fight atop a frozen pond), more than that. But what it’s missing is that wow factor that you only get to experience one time—that shock of the new. B-