Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
dir.: Ang Lee
PG-13, 120 min.
Now showing at area theaters
If I sound defensive about liking Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as much as I do, it’s only from years of reflexive conditioning. Tell somebody the best movie around at the momentthe one that, for all its negligible imperfections, leaves you breathless with wonder at what movies can dois a martial-arts film, and you’re likely to get the same responses I’ve had: either a bad imitation of the inane dubbing forever associated with kung-fu flicks (“Ahhh, your kung fu is good, Grasshoppah!”), or a look of blank incomprehension. Back in the early 1980s, on Saturday mornings, a local TV station used to broadcast double features of these movies, and they were handled with all the care raccoons extend to garbage bags: hacked to fit a 90-minute slot, chopped of anything gory or sexy, dubbed in a way that did violence to all languages.
Like their invincible heroes, though, something about them couldn’t be destroyed: a delight in speed and athleticism, a tonic after the lumbering Death Wish and Rambo clones that polluted mall cinemas at the time. In the mid-’90s, many superb martial-arts fantasies got wider distribution on video, and viewers could finally appreciate the artistry of films like Bride With White Hair, Swordsman II, and Wing Chun in letterboxed subtitled versions. But whenever I’d recommend them to people, I always got the same response: the dubbed voice or the gas face. So it was a thrill last weekend to sit in a sold-out theater, with the most rapt audience I’ve seen at a movie since Titanic, and see a first-rate martial-arts movie enjoyed for its beauty, wit, and physical exhilaration, not treated as some sort of camp relic.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, adapted from an early 20th-century novel by Wang Du Lu, is a loving tribute to the wuxia genre, a type of swordplay romance founded on themes of honor and loyalty. In some ways, the movie resembles an Eastern Western: an aging warrior, Li Mu Bai (a stoic Chow Yun Fat), tires of fighting and decides to hang up his sword, the fabled Green Destiny. He entrusts it to fellow warrior Yu Shu Lien, played by Michelle Yeoh, with instructions to hand it over to their mutual protector. Shu Lien delivers the sword at the same time a governor’s young daughter, Jen (Zhang Ziyi), prepares for her arranged wedding. But a thief has infiltrated the household. That night, a shadowy figure sails across the rooftops to the room where Green Destiny is on display. The masked bandit swipes the sword and takes to the air.
I don’t care how many Hong Kong action films you’ve seen, it’s impossible to get jaded by the sight of a human being leaping buildings as if stepping off a curb. The ensuing sequence, in which Shu Lien skims rooftops in pursuit of the thief, caroming from wall to wall like a pinball, repeals the law of gravity with such nonchalance that you’re left dumbfounded. And the later fight scenes, choreographed by Hong Kong wire-work master Yuen Wo Ping (The Matrix) with cast members cartwheeling and whirling in midair from digitally erased cables, are just as dazzling.
What may go unnoticed, though, is how deftly action is used to convey character along with emotion and thoughta hallmark of great action filmmaking. In that first scene, watch how Shu Lien ascertains from a single punch her opponent’s background and training, or how strategically she fights to keep the bandit pinned to earth. As the film sends Shu Lien and Li Mu Bai in search of the sword and the wayward Jen, who flees her marriage to sample a warrior’s life of freedom, the characters’ fighting styles voice their internal conflicts. When the two women ultimately face off in a whopper of a sword fight, it’s all the more exciting for the psychological contrast between Shu Lien’s coiled self-control and Jen’s bratty lack of discipline.
The director, Ang Lee, has been knocked for slowing down the action sequences for Western eyesmaking, in effect, a sort of middlebrow martial-arts Masterpiece Theater. But whatever the movie loses in kinesthesiaI’d argue littleit gains in depth of feeling. The weightlessness of the fight scenes is balanced by the bottomless regret in Shu Lien’s face. Shu Lien and Li Mu Bai, as it turns out, are bound not only by unspoken love but by tragedy, and Lee lingers over the constant ache in Yeoh’s eyes. The impulsive Jen craves freedom; Shu Lien wants release from a lifetime of loneliness. The solemn “Congratulations” she gives Jen on her wedding is as subtle and heartbreaking as the smile she barely suppresses at hearing Li’s name. In Yeoh, director Lee has an actor who can show shades of feeling while throwing a tornado of roundhouse kicks and punches; in Lee, Yeoh has a director who recognizes her as something more than a gifted stuntwomanor, as in her wasted turn as a Bond girl, exotic decoration.
Perhaps because he has such an unfashionable affinity for old-fashioned storytelling, as in his Austen adaptation Sense and Sensibility or his overlooked Civil War drama Ride With the Devil, Ang Lee gets slagged as a safe, unexceptional journeyman. But he has some of the virtues critics neglected for decades in commercial American directors like John Ford: a gift for linking character and landscape, a complex take on the role of community and tradition. When he combines those gifts with his sincere, rousing affection for the conventions of the martial-arts film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon makes the movies seem newly minted. Its wonders seem all the more stunning for being presented so casually. Then again, it doesn’t take much to convince an audience that Michelle Yeoh can fly.
I’ve never quite understood why mopey youngsters fixate on gothic entertainments, full of dark shadows and romantic angst. If you really want to be depressed, do it right. Leave your Bauhaus records at home and pick up John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band or Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night. Forget movies like The Crowspend an hour or so with Bill Forsyth’s film version of Housekeeping and you’ll be struck with a melancholy that can last for days. And if you really want a good wallow, queue up right now for The Pledge, a film that is an instant classic of the “no matter how hard we try, we’re all gonna die” genre.
The Pledge stars Jack Nicholson as Jerry Black, a veteran Reno police detective who’s retiring to a life of solitude and fishing. On the day of his farewell party, he joins his partner (played by Aaron Eckhardt) on a final casethe rape and murder of a preteen girl in the woods outside of the city. The force gets its man right away, but Jerry doubts that they have the right man, and since he made a promise before God and the mother of the victim that he would bring the perpetrator to justice, the now ex-cop decides to dedicate his retirement years to a different kind of fishing. Jerry detects a pattern of similar crimes in the area, and he buys a gas station in the community that he estimates is most likely to be the next stop on the villain’s spree.
Actor Sean Penn directed The Pledgefrom a script by Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski, adapting a novel by Friedrich Dürrenmattand as with his previous two films The Indian Runner and The Crossing Guard, Penn keeps a deliberate pace with minimal but memorable stylistic fillips. Understandably, given his background, Penn seems to believe that a story can be told by acting alone, especially wordless acting. He’s not the sort who cuts snappily from exposition to exposition; he prefers slow fades and scenes that run on after the dialogue has run out, where what is not said offers unnerving possibilities. The director rests his camera mostly on Nicholson, who does astonishing things as the disheveled, possibly deluded hero. When his Jerry meets a local barmaid (a chip-toothed Robin Wright Penn) with a preteen daughter, we’re unsure whether his growing attachment to the ladies is because they offer companionship, or because he realizes he can use the little girl as bait.
That may sound harsh, but The Pledge is harsh; it’s also tense, dramatic, and painfully emotional. The film builds more than once to heart-stopping action sequences that grip precisely because we don’t know how they’re going to end upbecause we don’t quite know what everybody is thinking or planning. Ultimately, The Pledge turns out to be an existential fish story, where the punch line isn’t “the one who got away,” because in this universe, nobody gets away. Even if the cops don’t catch the guilty ones, mortality eventually will. And it’ll catch the innocent ones too. That’s a bleak truth that you don’t have to be dressed in black to appreciate.
Fans of filmmaker Sam Raimi always hoped that he’d get respect, but never respectability. After the exuberant hyperbole of his Evil Dead trilogy and his underrated superhero saga Darkmanmovies that fused the Three Stooges, cartoon expressionism, and EC Comics splatter into a kinetic, striking, and weirdly personal stylethe restraint of his 1998 thriller A Simple Plan couldn’t help but seem like a bid for middlebrow acceptance. But when Raimi followed that with the lugubrious Kevin Costner baseball soap For Love of the Game, he appeared to be fighting his own talents in a sop to the mainstream.
Raimi’s new thriller The Gift comes equipped with a prestige cast, but it’s closer in spirit to his disreputable early horror movieshigh praise indeed. An engaging Southern Gothic set in a sleepy bayou town, The Gift allows Raimi to use his own formidable gifts for suspense filmmaking and nightmare imagery, although he still doesn’t get to indulge these underappreciated talents enough. But the movie compensates with a keen sense of place and several remarkable performancesstarting with the lead, Cate Blanchett, a luminous actress whose range (after playing the Queen of England in Elizabeth and a New Jersey housewife in Pushing Tin) seems limitless.
Blanchett plays Annie Wilson, a single mom who puts food on the table by telling fortunes out of her home. These sessions have the loose, warm familiarity of a beauty-parlor gabfest, but Annie’s psychic gift is realreal enough that surly townspeople regard her as a witch. When a battered wife (Hilary Swank) turns to her for advice at the same time that a wealthy flirt (Katie Holmes) goes missing, she’s suddenly troubled by nightmare visions: a woman’s corpse with one eye open, a chained body floating in the trees. But Annie has worse troubles to comestarting with the wife’s fearsome brute of a husband.
The husband is played, in a genuinely scary performance, by Keanu Reeves, who submerges his pretty-boy looks under a scruffy beard, a hunting cap, and a sullen stare that cuts to the bone. Reeves’ startling effectiveness as a backwoods bad-ass isn’t the only way Raimi’s unconventional casting pays off. As a Boo Radley-ish mechanic with a barely concealed dark side, Giovanni Ribisi demonstrates a volatile rage that belies his soft features, and among a cast studded with familiar facesincluding Greg Kinnear, Gary Cole, Michael Jeter, and J.K. Simmons as a dull-witted sheriffKim Dickens stands out in a brief role as Annie’s brash best friend. The superb Blanchett, meanwhile, never resorts to the kind of trailer-trash exaggeration that gets lesser actors raves. The Australian actress’ Southern accent is so good, and used so subtly, that you don’t sit there thinking how good it is.
The screenplay was written by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson, and as in their previous scripts for One False Move and A Family Thing, they populate their small-town Southern milieu with recognizable types that are drawn sharply enough to avoid lapsing into stereotypes. They also stock their setting with plenty of red herrings and plausible suspects, even if the movie bogs down in a hokey courtroom tussle. Despite the effective jolts and shivers Raimi delivers here, I still miss the loony-tune wizardry of his Evil Dead movies: This low-key thriller seems most alive when the talented filmmaker flexes his own gifts for macabre imagery and hyperbole. But The Gift may bring Sam Raimi closer to the respect he deserves, without making him dully respectable.
I was all like "how do you get the phone number for TMZ?!?!" you can't…
I think it's weird when speculation is wedged into an otherwise straightforward biography. I love…
I always read your column BEFORE I watch the show anymore. It's better that way.
What's the other review you read?
This was the worse review I've ever read. Maybe you should quit this career path…