Let’s get this out of the way right out of the gate: the original Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a masterpiece. Period. A perfect blend of genre filmmaking elevated by more purposeful, grounded storytelling, and featuring some of the best action sequences of the 21st century and a great ensemble cast, all under the firm directing hand of Ang Lee. The fact that it even managed to gross over $120 million domestically (the only non-English language film to do so in the US) amazes me to this day, and is just one of its many great achievements. Needless to say, this followup certainly had a lot to live up to. Did it succeed?
By far the best thing in the film is Michelle Yeoh, who reprises her role from the first film as Yu Shu Lien. She was great in the original and she’s pretty good here as well and still looks absolutely fantastic during the fight sequences, even more than a decade after the original, albeit while working with inferior material. But thankfully the newer cast members do a good job pulling their own weight. While the likes of a one-dimensional villain and a token pretty-boy love interest don’t register much, Natasha Liu Bordizzo as the requisite young adult woman/Ziyi Zhang stand-in is pretty memorable and provides a solid foil for Michele Yeoh’s more beleaguered master. Donnie Yen also is a bit of fun as a new wise master, and some of the supporting players manage to register as memorable presences as well.
Too. Much. CGI. And not a lot of it looks terribly convincing. Keep in mind, this is a “Netflix Original” production after all, so they don’t exactly have Marvel Studios-sized budgets at their disposal. With that in mind, the focus should’ve been on keeping things more scaled back and restrained, rather than still trying to go for more spectacle and just having most of it look like total garbage, which is unfortunately what they did. And taking into consideration how gobsmackingly gorgeous and dazzling the landscapes were in the first film – all of which were, you know, actually there – it’s a little disappointing to see its follow up feature such pitifully rendered backgrounds. Thankfully the actual set design and art direction behind the film is still able to measure up to the first, but when everything surrounding it looks on the level of something you’d see on the History Channel, it’s a bit disorienting.
Also worth mentioning is that the fight sequences in this one are much less impressive. The hand to hand combat scenes are fine on their own (as long as you can suppress the memory of the wildly superior fights from the first film), but the emphasis on larger scaled battles often falls short. Not only that, but so many of the setups and locales of the fights are incredibly derivative of what happened in the first (one at night while someone tries to steal the Green Destiny, another at a bar with one single fighter taking on dozens and emerging victorious anyway, etc.), therefore rending much of the combat herein as mere homage rather than anything that feels truly fresh or unique to this one film.
While it’d be damn hard to live up to the mammoth that was the original Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, this one still had the potential to be a terrific followup, had more effort been placed in the technical areas. As is, it’s fine. Fans of the original who are curious to see what they conjured up after all this time should be entertained, but casual audience members may not warm up so easily. Worth a look, but far from a must see.