Set during the Ming Dynasty in China, Reign of Assassins is a period martial arts film, with more of a focus on swordplay than hand-to-hand combat. The story revolves around the search for the magical remains of a mummified Indian monk, which will supposedly bestow upon the owner the ultimate kung fu skills. Like the various Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns, the film is populated with various outlaw types fighting each other and forming tentative partnerships when necessary to get to the treasure. However, the films that it overtly references are more recent action films including John Woo’s Face/Off, Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films and Luc Besson’s Nikita.
The central character is Drizzle, played by Kelly Lin, a former member of the Dark Stone assassin gang, who is being hunted by her former companions after she decides to abandon her old way of life (Kill Bill). She has her face surgically altered to change her identity (Face/Off) to then be played for the majority of the film by Michelle Yeoh. Meanwhile, the Dark Stone gang has recruited a deadly replacement in the form of Turquoise Leaf, played by Barbie Hsu, a homicidal young girl they rescued from being put to death (Nikita). Revealing the other film that Reign of Assassins overtly borrows plot points from would spoil a major twist.
Despite being heavily promoted in some parts of the world as a John Woo film, not to mention the Face/Off references, Reign of Assassins is actually written and directed by Taiwanese filmmaker Su Chao-Pin. Woo, clearly the more bankable name, still gets credited first as the film’s co-director, but there is little in this film that reflects his distinctive style. Woo was apparently on set to guide Su in a lot of the film’s direction, but the final product translates more into Reign of Assassins feeling like a tribute film that doesn’t quite get it right. Su utilises a lot of slow motion and kinetic movement in the fight scenes, but he pulls back on such stylistic moments before they really have a chance to fully grab the viewer. Heightened emotions and notions of honour are present, but the dialogue and music are often too contrived to allow the film to really revel in its melodramatic potential. It’s not as if Reign of Assassins is a poor persons John Woo film (Woo made those himself towards the end of his stint in Hollywood before returning to Hong Kong to make Red Cliff), it just never fully comes alive despite containing several tantalising scenes.
And yet, there are enough moments to make Reign of Assassins a film worth seeing. The opening twenty minutes is far too busy and chaotic (even for a film of this type) but once it settles down to focus on the main story of Drizzle’s past catching up with her, it starts to become interesting. Many of fight sequences are complex and inventive, especially when multiple interests are at stake. The other members of the Dark Stone gang have their own back-stories, distinct characteristics and special abilities, which make them a welcome inclusion in every scene they appear in. As with so many films of the genre, the fighting frequently resembles dance. While the conflicts are partly about defeating the enemy they are also about skilled warriors relishing the opportunity to push themselves and transcend the limitations of their own bodies. Reign of Assassins does offer plenty of exciting sequences, but it frustratingly never fully delivers what it promises to.