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

10 July 2011
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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Film review – Red Cliff (2008)

21 July 2009

NOTE: This review discusses the Western release version of Red Cliff, which condenses the two-part Asian releases version into one single 148 minute film.

Zhou Yu (Tony Leung)

Zhou Yu (Tony Leung)

John Woo’s last really top-notch film may be as long ago as 1997’s Face/Off but as the director of action classics such as the Better Tomorrow films (1986 and 1987), The Killer (1989), Bullet in the Head (1990) and Hard Boiled (1991) he is still the greatest living action director. Set in 208 AD in China during the Han Dynasty, Red Cliff may not contain any of the stylish and violent gunplay that defined so many of Woo’s gangster films but it is still a gripping character-driven film with spectacular action sequences. Based on the seven hundred year old novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Red Cliff is very loosely based on historical events about two Chinese kingdoms that formed an uneasy alliance in order to take a stand against the Chinese Prime Minister who was intent on waging war against all the separate Chinese states. The resulting conflicts culminated in the Battle of Red Cliff where the vastly outnumbered Kingdoms of Xu and East Wu defended themselves against the massive imperial army on the banks of the Yangtze River.

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Film review – A Scanner Darkly (2006)

5 December 2006

Most adaptations of novels or short stories by cult science fiction writer Philip K Dick (Paycheck, Minority Report, Total Recall) use his imaginative scenarios for action sequences but sideline his extraordinary philosophical musings. With A Scanner Darkly director Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise, The School of Rock) has directly adapted Dick’s novel from page to screen.

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