Long ago, a learned Indian scholar came to China where he later became the greatest of all Kung-Fu masters. So great was his fame that shortly after his death his remains were stolen, for it was believed that whoever possessed them would inherit mastery of the martial arts world. As you might imagine, the desire of such a miraculous relic threw the outlaw world into disarray as gang fought against gang, or occasionally each other, to get hold of it. Centuries later a mysterious group of assassins think they have located the body in the house of the Prime Minister, which they duly raid resulting in the death of both the Prime Minister and his son. In the course of this mission, the gang’s top assassin, Drizzle (Kelly Lin), finds the monk's remains but, fearing what might happen if the Dark Stone Assassins get their hands on them, she decides to flee and take the remains as far away from the gang as possible.
During her flight she meets a monk who, as a former assassin himself, helps her to see the error of her bandit ways whilst helping to hone her swordsmanship skills. He later convinces her to take the sacred remains to be properly interred in a temple where they can be looked after and protected from those who would misuse them. To avoid detection from her former friends, Drizzle undergoes some ancient plastic surgery to take on the identity of a dead woman - one that looks quite like Michelle Yeoh (not a bad face to end up with, even if you did start out as Kelly Lin). Drizzle, now Zeng Jing, is living peacefully selling fabric in a market and has even married the genial, if slightly dim, local courier (Jung Woo-Sung). However, as these things tend to go, even a change of face can’t mask your identity when your idiosyncratic kung-fu skills are as unique as Drizzle’s and it’s not long before the gang are back on her trail looking for what she took from them.
Yes, other than the problem being some missing magical remains rather than a more ordinary MacGuffin, it’s not the most original of wu xia plots - there was a gang, someone left the gang with something the gang still thinks is theirs, the gang wants it back, only this time the former bandit is a woman and the defenseless spouse is her husband rather than an unsuspecting wife. Interestingly enough, some of the most entertaining parts of the film aren’t even in the action sequences but in the gentle way Zeng Jing is trying to live an ‘ordinary’ life with one eye always looking over her shoulder.
The fight scenes, however, are fantastic. In true classic wu xia style the swords are flying fast and furious and there is refreshingly little use of CGI when it comes the action sequences themselves - unfeasibly bendy swords aside. Crucially the film places the action well inside the narrative and it all feels properly grounded and necessary rather than being a series of episodes designed to support a lackluster plot.
Aside from a few twists and turns that just don’t quite work, including one especially bizarre one that threatens to derail into farce (although thankfully never quite does), Reign of Assassins is one of the most entertaining period action films to come out of China in quite some time. Though it’s being sold to some extent on being a John Woo film, there’s little visible on screen which you could identify as authentically Woo. He’s credited as a co-director and producer only and from watching the film it does seem as if his role was a mostly secondary one of supporting and advising Su. It’s sort of a bait and switch as the poster is promising something other, though not necessarily lesser, than the film actually delivers. Still, what the film does deliver is some very entertaining action sequences balanced with a pleasing level of emotional involvement that adds up to fantastic example of old-school wu xia charm. If you’ve been feeling disappointed by some of the more lackluster period blockbusters coming out of China recently you owe it to yourself to check out Reign of Assassins as a reminder of just how good the genre can be.