Film: Reign Of Assassins
UK Release Date: Tbc
Director: Chao-Bin Su
Starring: Michelle Yeoh, Woo-sung Jung, Kelly Lin, Shawn Yu, Barbie Hsu
Running time: 117 mins
Reviewer: Adam Wing
Taiwan writer-director Su Chao Pin (Silk) joins forces with legendary filmmaker John Woo for a period tale about love and freedom. Hang on a minute, I here you say... surely you mean brotherhood and redemption, right? Surprisingly not, Woo’s latest collaboration steps away from familiar themes and embraces the softer side of life instead. I say softer; there are swordsman, epic battles and countless martial arts showdowns, but for the most part Reign of Assassins throws its arms out to love and sentiment.
Who am I kidding? Veteran action director Stephen Tung (Bodyguards and Assassins) is on hand to choreograph the exhilarating stunts, wire-assisted swordplay and epic battles sequences. He’s not so well versed in the art of poetic ballads so I guess bone-crunching action will have to do. Action queen Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) takes the leading role alongside popular Korean actor Jung Woo Sung (Musa the Warrior), and they’re joined by the likes of Shawn Yue, Kelly Lin and Barbie Hsu. Even John Woo's daughter gets in on the act, with Angeles Woo making her acting debut in a supporting role.
Before we get to the turbulent quest for pain and suffering - otherwise known as love and romance - there’s a tale to be told about the sacred remains of martial arts master Bodhi. In a nutshell, the person who acquires both halves becomes an ass kicking God with no equal. Upon learning of its whereabouts, the Wheel King (Wang Xueqi) - leader of a band of deadly assassins known as The Black Stone - sends his top killers to bring it back. We’re talking about a lot of power here, and with great power comes much backstabbing, resentment and distrust. Not to mention a little responsibility thrown in for good measure. Drizzle (Kelly Lin) steals the relics for herself, and is pursued with deadly intent by fellow Black Stoners Lei Bin (Shawn Yue), the Magician (Leon Dai), and Turquoise (Barbie Hsu). It’s a beautifully crafted opening, chock full of action, adventure and suspense, and a promising start from a team of filmmakers on the top of their game.
John Woo brings a touch of Face/Off to proceedings when, tired of a life of murder and bloodshed, Drizzle decides to quit the martial arts world. After altering her physical appearance (anyone can do that in a John Woo movie) she hides in a small town and takes on the guise of Zeng Jing (Michelle Yeoh). The second act is less concerned with swordplay and more concerned with, well, an altogether different kind of swordplay. Love blossoms when she falls in love with the seemingly naïve Jiang Ah Sheng (Jung Woo Sung), and so begins a humble married life more at home with tofu and tea than kick ass martial arts mayhem. Events do slow down for a while, but the chemistry between Yeoh and Jung Woo Sung is admirable. You might feel at times that the filmmakers have forgotten they’re making an action movie, but Su Chao Pin should be applauded for bringing his own touch to proceedings.
He also makes good use of the supporting cast members; in particular, the merciless band of assassins sent to track down renegade Drizzle. In Su Chao Pin’s hands, The Dark Stone isn’t just a horde of faceless killers. Yue, Dai and Hsu make the most of their time on screen and top quality writing ensures that Lei Bin, The Magician and Turquoise aren’t just token bad guys; they actually have character and identity of their own. It’s a smart move, one that gives the rest of the picture more depth than you might expect, and the final act benefits from a series of twists that focus on lust, hidden agendas and untruths.
Not dissimilar to your average relationship, then, but for now we’ll ignore the romance of it all and go with vengeance instead. Stephen Tung’s action choreography makes the most of the films high production values, and the various fighting styles add variety to a genre that has seen and done it all. Special praise goes to The Magician, but then, there’s something about fire on film that brings about the pyromania in me. Nonetheless, the action comes thick and fast in the final act and the well-drawn characters add extra weight to a genre often found lacking in substance.
John Woo’s name might be on the credits but make no mistake about it, this is Su Chao Pin’s picture. Brotherhood, redemption, doves and over-reaching sentiment are left behind in favour of characterisation, depth and perky humour. If you’re in it for the action however, don’t panic, Tung’s choreography is both energetic and engaging. The wire-fu is played down in favour of good old-fashioned swordplay and the end result is almost majestic. Only happy when it reigns? Bet your life you are.