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Being an assassin is tough on the social life. It’s even tougher when you’ve escaped from your old friends with the remains of a mythical Buddhist monk that is said to have the ability to grant extraordinary powers to those who possess them. Such is life for Drizzle (the beautiful Kelly Lin), a tough-as-nails assassin for the Dark Stone gang, led by the gravel voice Wheel King (Xueqi Wang). In the aftermath of another bloody job, Drizzle decides it’s time to skedaddle, but that’s easier said than done. After the Dark Stone puts a contract out of her, Drizzle goes the surgery route, and changes her face and assumes the identity of a dead woman name Zeng Jing, and Kelly Lin is suddenly replaced by the equally beautiful Michelle Yeoh as Drizzle. Or, actually, the assassin formerly known as Drizzle.
Note: If you’ve spent any time at all looking up the movie on the net, you will have already gotten the entire plot, including twists and turns of “Reign of Assassins” spoiled for you, which would be a shame. I will endeavor to keep this review spoiler-free as a result, because as twisty and sometimes “out there” as its twists are, Chao-Bin su’s “Reign of Assassins” is an excellent example of Wuxia done right and deserves to be seen with clear, unspoiled eyes.
Michelle Yeoh assumes the alias of Zeng Jing (Kelly Lin only appears for about ten minutes of the entire film), and with her bloody past behind her, attempts to start a new life in a new city. Our heroine spends her days selling fabrics in the markets and her nights trying to escape the very poor match matching skills of her landlady Mrs. Cai (Hee Ching Paw). Soon, Jing catches the eye of lowly street courier Ah-sheng (Korean actor Wo-sung Jung, from 2001’s “Musa”, and most recently Kim Ji-won’s “The Good the Bad the Weird”). It’s love at first sight for Ah-sheng, but given her background, Jing is overly cautious. Eventually, though, our reformed assassin relents, and the two get hitched. Married life is a happy one for Jing and the happy go-lucky Ah-sheng; that is, until a bungled bank robbery forces Jing to show her skills in order to save her and Ah-sheng’s life. Predictably, her violent past is soon nipping at her heels.
For the Dark Stone, it’s not so much that Jing has decided to abandon them, but that she took the Buddhist remains with her. This is most goading to the Wheel King, who has very personal needs for the mythical powers of that dead Buddhist fella. He’s aided in his search by a couple of formidable fighters – the Magician (Leon Dai), who uses tricks as part of his deadly bag of skills, and Lei Bin (Shawn Yue), a man who gives needle points a bad name. The threesome are joined by Turquoise (Barbie Hsu), a vicious little firecracker who came to their attention when she shanked her husband during their wedding night. Turquoise and the boys descend on Jing’s new, happy life, forcing the former assassin to pick up her sword for one more, final battle. Hopefully, she’ll be able to keep Ah-Sheng alive while she deals with her old buddies, but that’s going to take some doing…
“Reign of Assassins” is written by Chao-Bin Su, who shares directing credits with producer John Woo. Or at least, that’s the official word. I’ll be honest with you, I have seen almost every single movie John Woo has ever directed, and “Assassins” doesn’t really look like “a John Woo movie” to me. Of course, that’s not to say he didn’t have any input into the film, but perhaps giving him full co-directing credit on the marquee is a tad generous, and, if I were the conspiratorial type, was probably designed to make selling the film to an International audience easier. But hey, that’s for the lawyers and Chao-Bin Su to confirm or deny, so if that’s the official word on the subject matter, I’ll go along with it.
As for the film itself, “Reign of Assassins” is one of the better Wuxia movies to come out of China in recent years. I wouldn’t call it an epic exactly, because there’s a very self-contained and personal story here that doesn’t lend itself to “save the world” bravado. The film features an excellent balance of drama and action, thanks to a mature script and equally assured direction that never feels the need to rush through things. While it’s true that the film’s opening sequence, which leads to Drizzle’s exile, is shown in quick (perhaps too quick) snippets, I believe there is a purpose to this, as it allows the rest of the story to unfold and eventually catch up to, as it were, the scene of the crime. At its core, though, “Reign of Assassins” is a love story between Jing and Ah-sheng, and even when the action kicks in full-time in the second half, it’s the relationship between husband and wife, and how Jeng’s old life impacts it that keeps us riveted.
Less successful are the rest of the Dark Stone assassins. We get cursory looks at their personal lives (or lack thereof), in particular that of Shawn Yue’s Lei Bin, who always seems to be in the midst of a very complicated decision, and you’re never sure what he’s going to do next. Barbie Hsu is supposed to be young and precocious, which she does well, though you have to question the Wheel King’s decision to bring such a reckless personality into his secretive gang. I suppose her willingness to chop up her husbands probably helped. The story also introduces a rival assassins guild, but they’re mostly there to fill up some screentime and move the film’s side plot along. In this case, the McGuffin happens to be the carcass of a dead guy – in two pieces, natch.
I’ll be honest with you: I was very surprised by just how thoroughly I enjoyed the characters and relationships in “Reign of Assassins”. Much of the Chinese swordplay epics I’ve seen in recent years have either been torpedoed by slavish devotion to melodrama or just bad screenwriting. “Assassins” doesn’t have that problem, and the movie perfectly balances drama and swordplay, thanks in no small part to strong performances from its two leads. Michelle Yeoh and Woo-sung Jung are equally as at home in an endearing, convincing love story as they are duking it out with sword-slinging assassins. A good sign that the film has worthwhile characters and an engaging story is the fact that, after the first 15 minutes there is a long stretch without any action at all, and I didn’t mind for one second.
“Reign of Assassins” arrives on DVD November 25, 2010.
Chao-Bin Su, John Woo (director) / Chao-Bin Su (screenplay)
CAST: Michelle Yeoh … Zeng Jing
Woo-sung Jung … Jiang Ah-sheng
Shawn Yue … Lei Bin
Barbie Hsu … Turquoise
Kelly Lin … Drizzle
Xueqi Wang … The Wheel King
Hee Ching Paw … Mrs. Cai
Leon Dai … The Magician