I admit it: as a writer, I have a problem coming up with punchy titles. I’m the moron I always make fun of, the guy handing in a script with some all-purpose title like “Boiling Point”. So when a trend in using meta-style titles begins, I notice.
It’s hard to put a finger on where exactly it starts – 2007’s Shoot-Em-Up is a contender (and a favorite stupid movie of mine). 2011’s Wu Xia was the one that really made an impression on me, even though I think the movie hardly qualifies as true wuxia (never mind that, for Western audiences it was re-titled the even more generic Dragon). Dario Argento made a movie called Giallo, for pete’s sake.
(You can throw down all the Scary Movie and Superhero Movie titles you want. Yeah, they’re generic titles, and all share one thing: I despise them.)
Which brings us to tonight’s movie, entitled Jianghu (or pick your favorite romanization), titled after “the world of martial arts” you so often hear characters in Shaw Brothers movies ruling. The movie has a little better bearing on its title than Wuxia, and at least its Western title isn’t too generic – Reign of Assassins. (I’m still wondering where the hell Curse of the Black Scorpion came from when they re-titled The Feast, but that’s a grumble for another time)
What we have with Reign is a sort of reverse Kill Bill. The movie starts with the Dark Stone clan of assassins slaughtering an entire royal family to get one mystical artifact – half the mummy of a revered monk. Studying the entire mummy will allow you to rule the world of martial blah blah blah, but one of the assassins – a woman with the unlikely name Drizzle (Kelly Lin) – takes off with the mummy half and spends the next three months in hiding with a wandering martial artist named Wisdom, who, through an act of self-sacrifice, puts her on the road to a new life as a normal, law-abiding person.
After some Ming Dynasty plastic surgery (it involves carnivorous insects and golden thread), Drizzle is transformed into Zing Jing (Michelle Yeoh) who loses herself in the capital city, setting up shop selling purses and the like in the streetside market. Thanks partially to her meddling landlady, Zing meets up with Ah-sheng (Jung Woo-sung, whom you might recognize from The Good, The Bad, The Weird), a new arrival in the city working as a courier-for-hire.
This portion of the movie takes it’s time, setting up their relationship and eventual marriage very well, with only occasional cutaways to the Dark Stone bad guys, still looking for that half a mummy, and recruiting Drizzle’s replacement. Eventually the two groups are going to intersect (as you knew they would), when yet another group of villains attempt to rob a bank where the mummy is rumored to be stored (and Ah-sheng is cashing a check).When the bandits start killing potential witnesses, Zing can hold back no longer, and unleashes Michelle Yeoh whoopass on them.
That amounts to a tremor in the Force, and the Dark Stone’s head, The Wheel King (Wang Xueqi) recognizes Drizzle’s style even though she didn’t use her usual weapon, the flexible Water-Shedding Sword. The chief assassins of the Dark Stone descend on the city, and the fight is on.
There are some things that set Reign apart from the usual wuxia movie, besides the willingness to spend time developing Zing and Ah-sheng’s relationship (which pays off in the second half of the movie), the main one being the characterization of the Dark Stone assassins. Writer/Director Su Chao-bin has given each of them a backstory, and their own set of goals and desires. They’re a bit more dimensional than your usual bad guys.
If there is one complaint I have to make, it’s that some decent fight scenes – once more, to my joy, mostly practical wirework and very little discernible CGI, if any – is obscured by some frantic editing, possibly owed to the credited co-director, John Woo. Or possibly not. It’s not shot-through-a-telephoto-lens-what-the-hell-did-I-just-see bad, like too many Hollywood action scenes, but it does come close a couple of times. Luckily, the editing calms down in the second half, when those fight scenes start to really matter.
That out of the way: good performers, handsome camerawork, and a couple of plot twists I honestly didn’t expect puts Reign of Assassins on my plus list. A bit of patience with the first half – and really, guys, the relationship stuff is well-done – pays some nice dividends in the second half. Not a game changer, but not a time-waster, either.
This trailer’s a bit small, but it’s one of the few I found that wasn’t interested in revealing any plot twists:
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