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Reign of Assassins
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by Jay Seaver

"Actually, more grave-robbers and thieves, but they do kind of rule."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2012 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: A popular game among festival attendees after "Reign of Assassins" ("Jianyu") was to try and guess just which parts were worked on by "co-director" (and producer) John Woo. Certain elements of the action, certainly, although several pointed to "Face/Off" as a possible influence (having not yet gotten to see what a wuxia film that resembles "Face/Off" REALLY looks like with "Painted Skin: The Resurrection"). As a result, we probably didn't give writer/director Su Chao-bin quite enough credit for his fun action-romance.

Whoever's in charge at the start hits the ground running, with a "Dark Stone" assassin squad stealing half of a monk's corpse - said to bestow incredible powers upon the person who possesses the whole thing - and killing the ones who possessed it. But "Drizzle" Xi Yu (Kelly Lin) betrays her comrades Lei Bin (Shawn Yue) and "The Magician" Lian Sheng (Leon Dai) and their master Cao Feng (Wang Xueqi), the "wheel king". Xi Yu has surgery to change her face - she looks older, but also like Michelle Yeoh, so it's not so bad - and moves to Nanjing to live a quiet life as merchant Zeng Jing, eventually meeting a nice courier, Jiang A-Sheng (Jung Woo-sung) and settling down. But when Dark Stone traces the other half of the corpse to Nanjing, they reassemble the squad with black widow "Turquoise" Ye Zhanqing (Barbie Hsu) in Xi Yu's place and barrel into town in a way certain to upset Zeng Jing's happy new life.

And there's more - this is the sort of movie so packed with glorious crazy that the backstory and opening theft of the monk's corpse could be mistaken for the synopsis of a previous movie, even though that film doesn't actually exist. There's all kinds of crazy weapons, improbable if not downright anachronistic drugs and medical procedures, loopy plot twists, and fighting on well after any normal person would be dead. It's a larger-than-life fantasy in all the familiar ways, and some unfamiliar ones as well.

Perhaps the most memorable, though, is the action sequence that in a roundabout way most calls to mind Su's first film as writer/director. That film, Silk, was memorable in that it was a ghost story that Su approached as if it were science fiction; while Reign of Assassins stays pretty close to classic wuxia in spirit, the scene where Zeng Jing could be exposed as more than just a simple merchant is a bank robbery that, despite the characters using swords, fists, and feet rather than guns, feels like it comes from a western or a more contemporary crime movie. It's almost (but not quite) anachronistic, but never quite self-consciously so.

It's also one of the best action scenes in a movie that's full of pretty good ones; having John Woo on the set helping out certainly doesn't hurt there. The miniature spears Lei Bin shoots from his wrist give the directors plenty of time to engage in something like Woo's signature gunplay, making for a keen mix of contemporary and classical/period martial arts action. There is a fair amount of slow motion and CGI involved in showing special weapons like that and Zeng Jing's "Water-Shedding Sword" at work, and I must admit that I would have appreciated it if the filmmakers had moved the camera back a little more often. With sword-fighting in particular, it's nice to give the combatants a little space to work on-screen. The hand-to-hand stuff looks pretty good, though; Michelle Yeoh is still a force to be reckoned with even if she has been playing mentors and appearing in more dramatic movies of late.

Indeed, that recent experience is more typical of how Yeoh spends the bulk of the movie, and she's nice to watch as a woman who has mostly found peace and serenity, and is nervous when that is threatened but both emotional and capable when the threat becomes real. Give credit to Kelly Lin as well; as much as it's Michelle Yeoh's movie, she makes sure that the audience sees Zeng Jing and Xi Yu as the same person. Jung Woo-sung is easily charming and charismatic as A-sheng, while Shawn Yue and Leon Dai take good advantage of the scenes their given to make their characters more than just one-note baddies. Barbie Hsu is entertaining enough as Turquoise, but the petulant killer is something we've seen before, while Wang Xueqi's raspy voice and evil-mastermind theatricality as the villain will be loved and met with rolling eyeballs in equal measure - occasionally by the same viewer.

For the most part, I think this movie's willingness to be bold and larger-than-life works for it more often than against it. It's frequently nuts, sure, but the insanity is cool and mostly holds together, with Michelle Yeoh's performance a nice tether for the audience when things do threaten to get out of hand.

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originally posted: 08/20/12 08:49:50
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 67th Venice International Film Festival For more in the 67th Venice International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the New York Asian Film Festival 2011 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2012 series, click here.

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Directed by
  Chao-Pin Su
  John Woo

Written by
  Chao-Pin Su

  Michelle Yeoh
  Jung Woo Sung
  Kelly Lin
  Shawn Yue
  Barbie Hsu

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