What a lousy year for long-delayed sequels: It may not be a stink bomb of “Zoolander 2” proportions, but in many ways “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny” feels like an even more cynical cash grab. Trading on the pedigree of Ang Lee’s 2000 Oscar winner but capturing none of its soulful poetry, this martial-arts mediocrity has airborne warriors aplenty but remains a dispiritingly leaden affair with its mechanical storytelling, purely functional action sequences and clunky English-language performances. The result has grossed a healthy $32 million in China so far and began its Stateside streaming release on Friday (while opening on about a dozen Imax screens), but regardless of how it fares, exec producer Harvey Weinstein’s latest dubious non-contribution to Asian cinema will add some quick coin but no luster to Netflix’s library.
The singular magic that made Lee’s film such a boundary-breaking triumph — it won four Oscars and is still the highest-grossing foreign-language film in North America — is nowhere to be found in a production that seems predicated entirely on cost-effectiveness and compromise. Although “Sword of Destiny” has similar roots in the Chinese novelist Wang Dulu’s “Iron Crane” pentalogy and features a return appearance by Michelle Yeoh as the wise and formidable fighter Yu Shu Lien, it’s a work that feels dispiritingly cut off from its predecessor; not even the ascension to the director’s chair of Yuen Wo-ping (the veteran action choreographer behind much of the original film’s kung fu wizardry) can ensure much in the way of visual or dramatic continuity. And thanks to the filmmakers’ decision to shoot in English (with dubbed versions playing in Chinese territories) and to shoot primarily in New Zealand, with Grant Major (“The Lord of the Rings”) enlisted as production designer, the result is a sequel often feels less Middle Kingdom than Middle-earth.
To be sure, there are discernible and perhaps deliberate Tolkien-esque touches in this story of a weapon as powerful, corruptive and coveted in its own way as the One Ring. Eighteen years after the death of the great Wudan warrior Li Mu Bai (played by Chow Yun-fat in the original), his legendary blade, the Green Destiny, remains in the possession of the family of his old friend Sir Te. But when Shu Lien arrives at the Te estate, she has an immediate premonition that the sword will once again fall into the wrong hands. Sure enough, in a scene that recalls the awesome first action sequence in “Crouching Tiger” (but minus the awesome), a masked warrior breaks into the Te household and tries to steal the sword; he’s quickly caught and exposed as Wei-fang (“Glee’s Harry Shum Jr.), a member of the deadly West Lotus clan and thus a servant of the fearsome if none-too-subtly named warlord Hades Dai (Jason Scott Lee).
Something about Wei-fang leads Shu Lien to suspect he’s not such a bad guy (as noted, he’s played by “Glee’s” Harry Shum Jr.), and so she has him imprisoned in a cage in the open courtyard. This leaves the young man free to carry on a love-hate flirtation with Snow Vase (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), an impetuous young warrior who has apprenticed herself to Shu Lien, but who seems much more curious about Wei-fang than about achieving enlightenment through kung fu. Talented but undisciplined, and clearly guarding some sort of deep, dark secret, Snow Vase clearly reminds Shu Lien of that hidden dragon Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi, who wisely opted to stay hidden this time), which is hardly the only way “Sword of Destiny” plays like a feeble callback to the original.
Lee, our great chronicler of emotional repression in any epoch, was fond of describing “Crouching Tiger” as Jane Austen with martial arts — a playful, elegant and entirely intuitive conceit that he honored by taking the time to lay the dramatic foundation at the outset. Taking exquisite care with the film’s many character- and dialogue-driven scenes, he grounded his story within a rigid social order in which members of the warrior class were forbidden, by duty and honor, from acting on their desires. In that context, the gravity-defying action scenes, erupting with the force of stones rupturing a lake’s placid surface, were at once a reflection of — and a departure from — the characters’ repressed inner states.
None of that has made it to the screen in “Sword of Destiny,” and for better and for worse, no attempt has even been made in that direction. As scripted by John Fusco (also the creator of Netflix’s “Marco Polo”), the movie immediately kicks off with a mountain ambush and a frenetic blur of combat that conveys no sense of wonderment or discovery. And with the exception of one late sequence, beautifully filmed on the surface of a frozen pond at night, Yuen’s action scenes throughout have an uninspired brusqueness, with none of the original film’s sustained hand-to-hand intimacy or psychological depth.
The big centerpiece — which unfolds at an outdoor restaurant where the workers and the clientele alike engage in a violent melee — announces the arrival of Silent Wolf (“Ip Man” franchise star Donnie Yen), a powerful warrior who has an old score to settle with Hades, and a possibly romantic attraction to renew with Shu Lien. There are still more twists and developments to come in the form of childhood flashbacks, mistaken identities, climactic skirmishes, and two formidable female foes: a warrior named Silver Dart Shi (Juju Chan) and a scary blind sorceress (Eugenia Yuan). But they never feel like anything more than complications, needlessly cluttering up a drama that never makes a compelling case for its own existence.
Two lifelines to the original “Crouching Tiger” remain. Yeoh has always been an actress of uncommon elegance and poise, and her innate dignity inspires a flickering confidence in the material that it doesn’t really deserve — and also, inevitably, to offset your irritation that she agreed to do the film in the first place. And then there is the music, which is credited to the composer Shigeru Umebayashi, but is memorable only for those passages it retains from Tan Dun’s magnificent, Oscar-winning original score. The viewer’s spirit briefly soars with recognition, even when the movie comes crashing back to earth.