DVD review – Reign of Assassins (2010), Region 4, Madman

Reign of Assassins: Drizzle (Michelle Yeoh)
Drizzle (Michelle Yeoh)

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.

Reign of Assassins: Turquoise Leaf (Barbie Hsu)
Turquoise Leaf (Barbie Hsu)

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.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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  1. Didnt like your review at all. I dont agree with alot of it. The references you made to Face/Off, Nikita and Kill Bill. The way your talking about it is like the film makers set out to emulate those movies from the start.
    Also you said the story revolves around – “the search for the magical remains of a mummified Indian monk”. It wasnt an Indian monk, it was a Buddhist Monk and since the story is set in China its not very likely to be a Buddhist monk from India now is it? Your inaccuracy gives the impression you were not paying attention to the movie.

    Mostly I feel in your review you are giving too much of your own opinion which sounds like it could be a little bit biased for some reason.

  2. Sorry you didn’t like my review Hardeep, but the monk is Indian. One of the very first pieces of story information that the film provides is that he is a monk who came from India to China.

    I’m not sure what I am supposed to be biased about, but yes, when I write reviews I give just my own opinion and nobody else’s. There’s nothing unusual, abnormal and secretive about that.

  3. What is primarily reflected by this review is an inability to understand the movie’s raison d’etre within the context of its own genre. Instead the reviewer juxtaposed the film with a number of Western movies which reflects two interlinking points: first, the reviewer found it easier to discern the movie within the field of his Western palate; and second, by referring to a number of movies across a number of decades of Western-nuanced movie making, what we can gather is that the movie transcends the marked boundaries of movie genres by being more than just a HK martial arts action flick.
    By the reviewer’s very own portrayal of the film via the body of Western movie references, what one can definitely discern from this review is that there is no one movie, or types of movie that could encapsulate this film in full (except to what I call myth-making movies), underlying the director(s) and their teams creativity and intent for such a movie. And here marks the films strength. In light of the HK genre of martial arts flicks, this movie portrays an unprecedented (outside of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) level of personal and emotional conflicts across not just the protagonist but an ensemble of cool, intriguing, fierce martial art characters, whose ruthless dealings constantly position themselves to actualize their own secrets – and yet also a collective fantasy – that they all share the self-same desire to escape this labyrinth of the warriors world (Giang Hu). A violent and seductive underworld which is further underpinned by the rule of the ruthless underworld boss of the Dark Stone, who harbours yet a still more potent (excuse the pun :) desire to escape an even more fantastical fantasy. And set in the cultural backdrop of duty, honour and loyalty which are the moral precepts of any HK movie, along with the strength and skill precepts to any martial arts movie, what we have is a drama-riddled film eloquently dispersed throughout this action-packed, martial arts film. In this sense the movie precisely works successfully with an interweaving of character developments, plots, sub-plots, humour, martial arts choreography, appealing photography, and so on, into what essentially never stopped pretending to be anything but a martial arts movie. Not having even brought up the beautifully executed fight scenes, nor the array of talented actors, what this movie brings to the audience is its own unique blend, and a marked break from the formulaic Asian martial arts/action flicks, entailing the director’s vision, creativity and courage to follow a different path. 4.5 stars for me.

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