A delightful martial-arts romp that makes up in wit and exuberance what it occasionally lacks in clarity and finesse, “Reign of Assassins” unspools in a version of ancient China where killers yearn for lives of quiet domesticity, secret identities abound and death rarely has the last word. While the film takes some time setting up its convoluted specifics, the essentials seem to have gone satisfyingly right in the collaboration between Taiwan’s Su Chao-pin and a resurgent, post-“Red Cliff” John Woo. “Reign” should please local crowds starting Sept. 28, but will undergo some tinkering before opening Stateside as a Weinstein release.
In the world of “Reign of Assassins,” plastic surgery is accomplished by inserting poisonous insects into one’s nasal cavity, a procedure that apparently leaves you looking like Michelle Yeoh. That’s what happens to the wonderfully named Drizzle (played initially by Kelly Lin), a top member of the Dark Stone Assassins squad famed for her lethal “water-shedding” sword technique, who decides she’s had enough of her life of crime and wants to settle down.
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Starting over as a humble shopkeeper in the Chinese capital, Drizzle (now played by Yeoh) is shyly courted by Jiang Ah-sheng (Korean thesp Jung Woo-sung), and the two soon wed. But neither one counts on Drizzle’s former cohorts — led by the formidable Wheel King (Wang Xueqi) — to show up in a trouble-making mood. The assassins demand that Drizzle hand over the remains of a famous Buddhist monk, ownership of which grants invincibility in the martial arts.
As the tale of a star femme assassin choosing married life over mayhem, the scenario has more than a whiff of “Kill Bill”; indeed, “Reign” reps a frenzied stew of references, well-worn twists and unabashed cliches — executed by filmmakers who take palpable pleasure in reheating and recombining familiar genre elements. Su’s script has all kinds of fun with gags about eunuchs (a key plot point) and off-the-wall dialogue, though its sentimental refrain about lost love (“I would turn into a stone bridge and endure 500 years of wind and rain”) harks back to the drippiest romantic aphorisms of mid-’90s Wong Kar-wai.
Among other things, the picture works well as a playful domestic comedy as it observes Drizzle and Jiang adapt to married life; the notion of a skilled warrior trying to protect her unsuspecting, slightly dopey husband is played with a tenderness that yields unexpected emotional dividends at the film’s bloody finale. Pic reps a fine showcase for Yeoh (too little employed in this sort of high-flying action vehicle since 2000’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), whose Zen-like elegance renders her command of swordsmanship and hand-to-hand combat all the more impressive. Jung, who played “The Good” in “The Good the Bad the Weird,” has an endearing, affable presence, and is eventually granted an opportunity to display his own action prowess. Barbie Hsu and Shawn Yue effectively round out the DSA squad.
As directed by Stephen Tung, the action is seldom as cleanly choreographed as one would like, often rendered a kinetic blur by Cheung Ka-fai’s editing; still, the style suits Su and Woo’s giddy, unpretentious tone. Production design and costumes are evocative but not too lavish, and Horace Wong’s widescreen lensing proves as nimble as the characters.