Reign of Assassins is one of the best wu xia films of the past decade, marrying old school pleasures with comic book aesthetics and inventive action instead of relying on the grim seriousness mandated by the Hero model. Characterization is often a weak point in the genre but director Su Chao-pin turns it into a strength, casting a combination of reliable warhorses and talented new faces who imbue even minor parts with dignity and depth.
Particularly fine is Michelle Yeoh, in one of her best leading roles (even though she shares her character with Kelly Lin in the beginning of the film) as a deadly assassin turned small town romantic. Yeoh gets to mix domestic comedy into her usual repertoire of steely determination and fatal strikes, and carries the film with her charm and charisma. Shawn Yue, Barbie Hsu, and Wang Xueqi also shine in supporting roles as her assassins’ guild colleagues, with Hsu standing out as Turquoise, a venomous ball of minx-like cunning and seduction.
Su plays with audience expectations throughout, introducing clichés and subverting them lightheartedly. Reign of Assassins also features what may have been a first – a Chinese period piece bank robbery staged in the classic Hollywood manner, only with swords and fists substituting for guns.
While Reign of Assassins does not quite live up to the standard of modern wu xia excellence set in the same year by the first Detective Dee, it was a an extremely promising action debut. It’s a shame Su has only been active as writer since. I’d love to see a follow up. Hopefully John Woo, who assisted in directing some of the action, can take a more active role in Su’s career.
3 out of 4 stars (Very good).