An epic tale of love, power and betrayal, The Assassins is another big screen account of the life and times of Cao Cao. Forgive us for a lack of excitement over here, Cao Cao has appeared in more films than Samuel L. Jackson, though I'm pretty sure his box office success pales by comparison. He wouldn't quite cut it with a purple lightsaber either.
In the early era of the Chinese Han Dynasty, Prime Minister Cao Cao (Chow Yun Fat) ventured to the east and savagely defeated China's greatest warrior, Lv Bu. He terrified every warlord in the country and crowned himself King of Wei. Meanwhile, young lovers Mu Shun (Tamaki Hiroshi) and Ling Jv (Crystal Liu Yi Fei) were taken from a prison camp to a hidden tomb where they spent five cruel years being trained as assassins for a secret mission.
The Assassins is the directorial debut of advertising director Zhao Lin Shan, brought to life by Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Zhao Xiao Ding, who has worked as Zhang Yimou's cinematographer ever since House of Flying Daggers. Chow Yun Fat takes on the role of Cao Cao, supported by a cast that includes Alec Su (The Message), Ni Dahong (A Simple Noodle Story) and Annie Yi (My Kingdom). The Assassins is available on DVD and Blu-ray in the U.K. courtesy of Universal Pictures.
The Three Kingdoms era is well documented by Asian cinema, so it would take something really special to stand out from the crowd. Chow Yun Fat was originally lined up to appear in John Woo's epic account of Red Cliff, but backed out in order to star in a film based on a video game that nobody bothered to watch. Red Cliff is for me the benchmark of modern Three Kingdoms-era adaptations, and The Assassins - for all its ambition - fails to ignite the senses in the way that Woo did. Chow Yun Fat is as watchable as ever, but the rest of the picture fails to capitalise on his undeniable screen presence.
Chronicling the latter years of Cao Cao's life, The Assassins bursts out of the blocks at a dizzying pace. There are no explanations as to what's going on, but even if you're not up to speed with the Han Dynasty era, there's a good chance you've seen enough films to get you through. We'll just pretend that they're all historically accurate for the time being. Things slow down after that, and The Assassins is more concerned with lofty drama than all out warfare on the battlefield. There are confrontations to be found, but most of them are of the cunning and conniving variety, which is probably a good thing because the action sequences fail to excite in the way that Red Cliff did. One siege in particular is overly ambitious, criminally overblown and unintentionally comical.
Subplots are thrown in for good measure but do little to ease the boredom, with perfunctory twists and turns failing to add anything new to proceedings. The sexual escapades feel out of place at times, as do the characters played by Liu and Hiroshi, who could have appeared in their very own movie. Alec Su's interpretation of Emperor Xian is worth the price of the DVD alone, coming on at all times like the by-product of a Baz Luhrmann picture. Chow Yun gives good fat but is let down by an uninspired script, workmanlike production and tepid direction.
We've seen this kind of movie a thousand times before so forgive us for lacking heart. The Assassins is a tired historical drama that lacks ambition and drive. It's not without merit and fans of Chow Yun Fat will probably lap it up, but there's nothing exceptional to see here. There's a good chance I'll be returning to Red Cliff in future for my Cao Cao fix. AW