Boy, sometimes I think it's best to see a movie without hearing a damned thing about it beforehand.
I likely wouldn't have given a whole heck of a lot of though to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, had I not been told again and again and again by friends how wonderful it was and how I just had to see it. So without doing a lot of research, I made it a point to get into the theater to see this cinematic wonder before the chance to do so has passed me by.
Little did I know, I would've missed practically nothing. Yes, I'm in the 1% or so of the population that did not like Crouching Tiger.
Which isn't to say that I would classify the movie with the Manos: The Hands of Fates of the world, far from it. I wouldn't even lump it in with Boogie Nights or Starship Troopers. Crouching Tiger isn't a BAD movie.
It just isn't a good movie either.
I'll hit the high points first, because however much I didn't like the film, they existed. The cinematography for a start was very impressive. Sweeping landscapes, good framework, all that technical jazz. The continuity director also deserves a hand. My eye was focused primarily on other things for most of the shots (as was intended), but absolutely every time I glanced around, there was the broken piece of concrete that had been shattered a minute ago. There was the discarded scabbard, the broken table. Given what must have truly been hellish fight sequences to film for all involved, to get details like this correct shows a dedication to detail that most movies don't give more than a second thought to, and I appreciated that.
And then there's the fighting.
Let's not kid ourselves, it's the fighting that makes Crouching Tiger. The plot is lame and driftless, the characters are stagnant and boring (more on both of these points in a bit), but the action is second to none. Once you get over the ridiculousness of the excessive wire work used to make the actors actually float around the screen (this took about two minutes for me to laugh at, become irritated by and then subsequently ignore, but your mileage may vary. I thank Xena for helping me to build up a tolerance to this), the fights are breathtaking and heart-pounding. I'll likely be purchasing the DVD of Crouching Tiger as soon as it's available, but I guarantee you I'll only be watching about five scenes in the entire movie.
So what was wrong with the rest of it? Put simply, it's substandard fare. When the movie was over and I was watching the credits, the first thought that came to my mind was "I could write a better story than this." Trust me, for me to think that is saying something.
I'll begin big, and that's with the plot. If you ask anybody to sum it up for you briefly yet succinctly, I give you 10 to 1 odds that they'd have trouble. That's because there is no basic plot. I spent the first half of this movie trying to figure out exactly what was supposed to be the main storyline we were following, and came up empty, finally giving up and just hoping that they'd start trying to beat the crap out of each other again soon. This, perhaps more than anything else, is a damned shame, because they had some storylines here that had great potential, if they could've just picked something and stuck with it. At some point in the film, I thought the movie was going to be about any one of the following:
Oh, and the list could go on. Now perhaps you're sitting there saying to yourself "But it was about all those things, and more!" I say to you "No it bloody well wasn't." Each of these things were a part of the movie, but not a single solitary one of them were what the movie was about. And that's what a plot is, the main story in a drama.
- Li Mu Bai and the conflict he faces between his duty as a warrior and his desire for peace.
- Shu Lien's attempt to find her place in a world where woman are primarily commodities to be used in barter.
- Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien's guilt over their love for one another.
- Some hidden mystery with the Green Destiny sword.
- Shu Lien and Jen's camaraderie and decline into hostility.
- Jealousy Shu Lien feels towards Jen, both as someone "stealing" Li Mu Bai's attention and as possibly the only female to ever get into Wudan. (This was never really brought up in the movie, but I thought it would have been at some point, and was rather disappointed that it never was. Shu Lien was clearly as capable a fighter as Li Mu Bai, and given Jade Fox's huge mad-on about women never being taught the way of Wudan, I thought it would be a good point of contention, but it never seemed to cross anybody else's mind. Shame.)
- Jade Fox. Anything about her.
- Jen and Lo. Anything about them.
The main story in Crouching Tiger was "Okay, how do we get these people fighting again?"
There's a place in the movie industry for action movies. A muchly cherished niche that should be proud to have Crouching Tiger in its ranks. But to attempt to bill the movie as anything more -- a great drama, a moving love story, or any of the other hundreds of things I've seen said about it -- does a great injustice to its roots as a no-holds barred, foot stompin' good action flick.
Now the characters. I'm almost more disappointed by the characters than I am the plot (almost).
Honestly, despite all the criticism above, I didn't hate Crouching Tiger. It disappointed me, but that's not necessarily it's fault so much as my own for allowing myself to be hyped up by those around me before-hand. What is it's fault is not taking full advantage of the wonderful actors at its disposal, or the truly different and interesting plot that it could have had, if it'd just tried a little harder. Crouching Tiger suffers from that most dreaded of comments I heard while growing up: It didn't perform to its potential. And that, unfortunately, is what is truly unforgivable.
- Li Mu Bai. Our grand hero. I think he's in perhaps 5% of the entire movie. Li Mu Bai's no more the hero in Crouching Tiger than is Bo, the useless city guard. His name certainly gets tossed around enough to make you think he's there a lot, but most times he just turned up at the last moment to stare down Jen.
- Shu Lien. One of the most developed characters in the film, she managed to remain demure and level-headed amidst the sea of testosterone that Li Mu Bai gave off sometimes (an admittedly impressive achievement seeing as how he ran around in his bathrobe the entire movie). Sadly, she had the misfortune to suffer from the same developmental fate as Jen ...
- Jen. Easily the primary focus of the movie (well, when they remembered they were supposed to have a focus). I think it sort of sums it up, then, that she didn't develop in the least. One of the key characterization points for a movie is that your protagonist is supposed to grow. Jen starts the movie as a skilled yet selfishly indulgent little girl, and she ends it as a skilled yet selfishly indulgent little girl. Jen learned nothing. She changed nothing. Put simply, as the primary focus of the movie, she sucked. As a secondary, motivational character, she would've been fascinating, but they just didn't do anywhere near enough with her to warrant all the attention, and as such she wound up coming off even more shallow than the character was written.
- Jade Fox. Here we have our antagonist, and the spider spinning the connective web around all the cast members. She killed Li Mu Bai's master, she brought Jen to the path of her destiny, and she also apparently killed a cop's wife at some point in the past giving three characters a reason to fight her and then be promptly forgotten again. So for being the antagonist, why the hell did they keep forgetting to use her? Out of all the characters in the movie, Jade Fox's motives were the most believeable, and consequently the most interesting. That having been said, she vanishes somewhere after the first hour or so, wherein I promptly forgot all about her. When she appeared again out of nowhere to scoop up Jen and bring everybody together for the convenient final showdown, it surprised the hell out of me. It is utterly unacceptable for a story to allow you to forget the chief motivation behind everything that is going on. On behalf of Jade Fox, the most interesting character in the movie, I kick the screenwriters in the groin and insult their ancestors.
- Lo. Uhm ... why are you here again? Oh yes, to pad out the movie and give Jen someone to talk to before she takes her final, stupid-ass plunge off Wudan Mountain. Thanks for that, dude. Couldn't have had a film without you.