I have a really low opinion of Hong Kong these days. I discovered the graceful mayhem of John Woo and Tsui Hark back in the early 90’s on bootleg video tapes with dodgy Engrish subtitles and instantly fell in love. I’d been watching Jackie Chan and Shaw Brothers kung fu ballads of brotherhood on Black Belt Theater in the early 80’s and what this all adds up to is that my fandom of Hong Kong Action was right there at ground zero, seeing so much of it come out as soon as it was subtitled for English audiences. Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao were the gold standard of thrilling action vehicles. They’re the sort of export that spoils young Americans early so that the oiled American killing machines that dominated the US box office at the time had limited appeal. It wasn’t until Lethal Weapon and Die Hard that I felt like Hollywood was finally catching up to the high octane thrills of Hong Kong. That golden period of Hong Kong action, the late 80’s and early 90’s, though, that was where it was at. It was such a strong period of film that American studios started paying attention and snatched them all up. All my favorites, right down to Ronny Yu came over and made something. Most of it sucked but the point is that the American machine absorbed Hong Kong’s mightiest names and watered them down. John Woo floundered here and Jackie Chan got old, playing second fiddle to Luke Wilson and Chris Tucker.
The Hong Kong candle faded, leaving room for Japan to up it’s standings in the horror and science fiction genres while Thailand picked up the martial arts torch and ran with it to places Hong Kong never thought to go. Meanwhile, Hong Kong floundered. Pop stars filled the vacuum left by genuinely talented martial artists and actors. A few gems emerged. Pretty much anything starring Donnie Yen and a wave of elaborate costume dramas incorporated complicated martial arts sequences into their poetic tapestries but it was never quite enough to get the machine running at full steam again. I’ve mourned this loss, though, and I think I’m over it. Every now and then something comes out of the Hong Kong system that is astonishing. It’s also nice to see that John Woo has gone home. I didn’t see Red Cliff and he didn’t exactly direct Reign of Assassins, but I’ll tell you something: His style is all over this god damn movie and it’s fucking awesome!
Drizzle used to roll with a pack of killers called The Dark Stone clan. Her water-shedding sword technique cut down every fighter she ever faced and the Dark Stones had a bad reputation for being brutal killers, ruthlessly hunting the remains of the monk, Bodhi, said to grant the owner amazing powers. The Dark Stones trace half of the remains to a family who they brutally murder after a spectacular fight but in the confusion, Drizzle steals the upper part of the body and runs off. After spending months in hiding with a monk who points out the flaws in her sword technique, they fight and he sacrifices himself in hopes of enlightening her. It works and she changes her face, puts her violent past behind her and hides in Nanjing, trying to forget about the Dark Stones. But they haven’t forgotten about her and their leader, The Wheel King, lusts for the remains of Bodhi. They’ve since replaced Drizzle with a nymphomaniac psychopath and they’re out to get revenge and recover the body of the monk.
John Woo was a director on this picture inasmuch as Frank Miller was a director on Sin City. The actual credited director, Chao-Bin Su, was a relatively inexperienced director who took on a wushu picture of staggering scope. Reign of Assassins isn’t House of Flying Dragons grade wushu but it’s up there. This picture lives on the same wavelength of some of Hong Kong’s more excessive and popcorny kung fu movies and it benefited from having John Woo on set as producer to lend his almighty director’s eye and act as a mentor to Chao-Bin. Reign of Assassins is an ubelievable treat for fans of martial arts and Hong Kong action, proving to the world that Michelle Yeoh is, indeed, the shit. She’s a dancer, an accomplished martial artist and stunt-woman and a freakin’ Bond girl and it doesn’t matter if the last time she flexed her kung fu muscle was Crouching Tiger, Hidder Dragon. She still has it. Big time. At nearly 50 years old, she’s still flying off the walls and performing amazing physical feats. Say what you want about wire-fu. It may look awkward and unnatural, but it is not easy to do those stunts by any stretch of the imagination.
Reign of Assassins isn’t just fighting, though. We get a cast of colorful characters, true to any kung fu movie. Each one possessing a unique and exciting ability and among this story of lust and revenge is a remarkably engaging story about redemption and love. Every character, hero and villain is an engaging piece of work, too, and each of their stories and angles comes with something to draw you further in to story. It’s a well-written piece full of people you actually like and a couple of heart breaking emotional hooks. It’s not without its flaws, though. The Dark Stone martial artists are mostly despicable killers and any empathy you might dig up for Drizzle comes from the glaring fact that her violent past is hardly established apart from an intro that sort of elbows you to tell you that she was bad at one time in her life. Everyone else is cast in a particularly negative light. Make no mistake. There are also times when Reign of Assassins feels unnecessarily convoluted and at nearly two hours long, there’s an awful lot going on and a long span of the second act wherein not one person gets punched in the face puts Drizzle and her eventual husband together so that all can be comfortably revealed in the astonishingly cool third act. The picture, though very, very cool, is a bit clumsy that way.
Though, I downplay the contributions of John Woo in this movie, let it be known that they swapped out guns for swords and the film’s inner framework is pure, classic John Woo. Reign of Assassins deftly references Woo’s best-known pictures without ever feeling directly derivative of any of them. Michelle Yeoh stands in for Chow Yun Fat and many times throughout the picture Woo’s trademark tragedy shines on a Shakespearean level bringing to mind Chow Yun Fat in The Killer and Simon Yam in Hard Boiled, two characters trying to bring about some good from a very bad situation.
It’s been a real long time since I’ve been so thoroughly entertained by a martial arts movie from Hong Kong. I was beginning to feel like the wave had crashed but Reign of Assassins proves that with a little help from the legends of Hong Kong cinema, a new generation of filmmakers can rise up out of the ashes and bring about a new wave of Chinese thrills. For the last ten years, it’s looked like Johnny To was going to have to carry that banner alone but Chao-Bin Su looks like the kind of director who can keep this sort of momentum moving forward. The film is not perfect but it doesn’t have to be. There is so much creativity flying around in here, peppered with touches of old-school Hong Kong, both in John Woo and Shaw Brothers style, that you can overlook its sometimes clumsy mechanics and appreciate it for what it is: A really good kung fu movie.