Chao-Bin Su’s Reign of Assassins (Jianyu, 2010) is a Chinese martial arts movie that, whilst formulaic in places, still manages to exceed the expectations of even the most staid of genre enthusiasts. Drizzle (played by the ever youthful Michelle Yeoh), a former assassin, has stolen the remains of a mystic monk, and a band of deadly assassins are after her. While the premise is a tired one, Reign of Assassins works hard to avoid the tropes and clichés of the contemporary martial arts film, and to its credit, generally succeeds. What does impress throughout is the expertly choreographed action scenes, with Su aided by veteran action maestro John Woo.
Keeping the fight scenes relatively short using sharp edits and with a focus on flowing hand-to-hand combat keeps the action grounded, rather than relying on wirework or excessive slow-motion effects. The style of each fight varies, helping to keep the sequences fresh and interesting, as opposed to a repetitive succession of confrontations. The bloodshed is kept to a minimum, allowing the action scenes to retain a sense of grace and integrity, as opposed to the exercises in brutal self-indulgence in the likes of Gareth Evans’ The Raid (2011).
More importantly still in terms of the film’s overall success, there is context to the martial arts mayhem – a sense of cause and effect, rather than just a compendium of fight scenes. Although the narrative itself is somewhat thin on he ground – most likely because the plot is a familiar one – it does add the classic Shaw brothers feel of the film. There are a few plot twists which bring some originality into the story at the end, but otherwise Reign of Assassins follows your typical revenge narrative arc. Consequently, characters are, it has to be said, not particularly well-developed. Drizzle is the most developed of the cast, and Yeoh brings a sense of depth to the role, balancing the vulnerable with the deadly.
Little is learnt about any of the other assassins, they are your typical stoic martial arts masters are interchangeable, only distinguishable by their particular fighting expertise. Drizzle’s sympathetic husband fares little better, with Jiang A-sheng’s (Woo-sung Jung) motivations not really explored in any great detail, which is disappointing considering his role in the subsequent narrative twists and turns; with a little more character development his significance and emotional resonance would have produced a much richer film.
Although Su’s latest falls down in places, like any revered martial arts master, it’s about jumping straight back up to your feet in a suitably graceful stance. The action scenes are compelling and beautifully shot, and at the climax even the generic story manages to evoke a sense of intensity. Lacking in plot and character development, to its credit, Reign of Assassins still manages to have a sense of spectacle and splendour.
Hannah Albone (CUEAFS)