It is the stuff dreams are made. However, in Ming-era China, it is not a little black bird, but an ancient monk’s corpse—two halves of it to be precise. While her Dark Stone assassin guild will kill or die for the martial arts-infused body, one former femme fatale-killer opts to go straight and responsible in Su Chao-pin’s Reign of Assassins (trailer here), “co-directed” with the John Woo, which releases today on DVD, from Weinstein and Anchor Bay.
According to legend (and Reign’s cool animated prologue), when the Bodhi monk came to China, he perfected the practice of martial arts. So profound was his kung fu enlightenment, it became ingrained in his very body. Hence, his divided cadaver was plundered from the tomb for the sake of the power it might bestow. Wheel King, the shadowy leader of the Dark Stone, is determined to find and unite the monk’s remains. Yes, he wants that martial arts mojo, but he has other secret motivations as well. However, Drizzle, one of his top lieutenants, has gone rogue at an in/opportune time.
Changing her features, Drizzle becomes the beautiful but mild mannered Zeng Jing, a street vendor with a huge stash of silver under her floor. Naturally, she turns the heads of all the men in town, but only the foot courier Jiang Ah-sheng is worth a second look. It turns out he is worth marrying. Unfortunately, when bandits strike close to home looking for the Bodhi body, her façade starts to slip. Suddenly, Zeng’s former colleagues come knocking.
Reign has a massive karmic twist that might be guessable, but still packs an archetypal punch. It also has Kelly Lin as the before Drizzle, Michelle Yeoh as the after Zeng (talk about twice lucky), and Barbie Hsu as the red-hot psycho Dark Stone recruit, Turquoise Leaf. Indeed, Reign is blessed with a great action heroine in Yeoh, who is still impressive in the fight scenes, as well as several memorably colorful villains, most definitely including Hsu. Once again, Wang Xueqi does his thing, making Wheel King one heavy old cat. Yet, Reign also has some nice quiet moments shared by Yeoh’s Zeng and Jung Woo-sung as the apparently genial Jiang.
While Reign does not exactly reinvent fight choreography, its execution is pretty spectacular, especially sequences featuring Drizzle/Zeng’s “water-shedding-sword” technique. The symmetry of its fight scenes is also cool and clever. Reign might not display very many Woo-isms, but it has a well-crafted period look. Plus, there are some stone-cold Buddhist elements, including Calvin Li memorably playing a monk-to-be appropriately named “Wisdom.” It is a relatively brief appearance, but he looms large. It is also fun and wonderfully reassuring watching Yeoh bring it once again. She still has massive skills and super screen presence.
Reign was on the festival circuit several years ago, so its absence on home video has been mystifying. It will be worth the wait for wuxia and Yeoh fans (presumably there is a lot of crossover between the two). Recommended for those who appreciate elegant, character-driven martial arts cinema, Reign of Assassins is now available on DVD, from the Weinstein Company and Anchor Bay.