Ever since making his debut with What Price Honesty (1993), it has been clear that Daniel Lee is a director with a keen visual sense. On some occasions it could be argued that his films favor visuals over substance, although early efforts such as Black Mask (1996) or Moonlight Express (1999) was less of an issue, with these films being perfect commercial fare.
However, sometimes his visual flourishes totally overshadowed the material, with the most obvious examples of this being Star Runner (2003) and Dragon Squad (2005), with the latter being so over directed to the point of distraction, with Lee’s flashy camera work being more of a hindrance than an advantage.
His films seem to work best when his more stylistic tendencies are subdued. Films like …Till Death Do Us Part (1998) and A Fighter’s Blues (2000) are prime examples with this, with them having a much stronger focus on plot and character than some of his more well known movies.
While his flashy visuals have never really left him, he has managed to make some worthwhile films as his career has progressed. While Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon (2008) was slightly let down by his usual favoring of style over material, quality performances from Andy Lau and Sammo Hung still made the film worthwhile.
His follow up was the better realized 14 Blades (2010), a Donnie Yen actioner that while lacking in plot contained enough quality action scenes to overcome this apparent drawback. It was certainly a more exciting endeavor than his next film, the well made but overdone White Vengeance (2011).
More enjoyable was the ridiculously enjoyable Dragon Blade (2015), a Jackie Chan actioner where he kept his more overblown stylistic flourishes at a minimum, allowing the typically great Jackie Chan fight choreography to shine through. Sure, the film was very much universally derided but as a true Jackie Chan film, it gave me exactly what I wanted.
Time Raiders (2016) was a step in the wrong direction, containing everything that can go wrong with modern Chinese fantasy films. Thankfully he followed this up with true life drama The Climbers (2019) which resulted in one of his most well rounded films to date.
This all brings us to his latest magnum opus, fantasy martial arts actioner Song of the Assassins or alternatively as it’s called in the West, Code of the Assassins. When watching the trailer for this, I did think this would be one of Lee’s maximum overstyled extravaganza, with an abundance of overblown flashy visuals but very little in the way of actual substance.
Thankfully upon finishing the film I was mostly proven wrong, that while Lee does occasionally go overboard with the fancy camera moves and CGI, he still manages to inject proceedings with a real sense of pace, creating several well choreographed set pieces on the way to an excitingly staged finale.
William Feng stars as Qi Jun Yuan, a gifted swordsman who has been trained by a secret team of assassins. While he has all the necessary skills, he doesn’t have the killer instinct that is required to be an assassin, with him failing on his first mission.
Forced to go on the run from not only his rivals but his very own clan of assassins, whilst at the same time finding himself ensnared in a large conspiracy within the martial arts world. Living as a fugitive, with no idea of who he can trust, Qi must not only fight to survive but also uncover who is behind this conspiracy if he is ever going to live a life of peace.
As any fan of wuxia know, realism isn’t at the top of their list of priorities. Code of the Assassins is filled to the brim with impossible feats of martial power, with characters flying through the air with ease and displaying the type of superhuman abilities that normally appear in Superhero movies in the west.
There’s even something of a cyberpunk edge to the story, with lead character Qi sporting a robotic hand. This plays well into the action, even if Daniel Lee gets carried away by including CGI cutaways to show the inner workings of his arm. At first this is a cool way of showing how this works, but Lee overplays his hand when he not only shows it again on several occasions but also does the same with other characters’ weapons. This is a minor issue, but still shows that Lee is still incapable of showing restraint.
The script could be considered convoluted, what with its focus on government conspiracies and its countless twists in the tale, with it never being clear which character can be trusted. However, this certainly works in the film’s favor, with it generating a sense of tension and interest that more simple minded actioners lack. It does become a bit too much in the final stretch of the film, where we are treated to yet more double crosses but by then the film has set up enough goodwill that it can be easily forgiven.
Throughout his career, Daniel Lee has at least shown a knack for action. True, his action scenes are guilty of being over edited but thankfully that isn’t as much of an issue here. The action scenes do have the odd fancy camera move, but these don’t overshadow the fine action choreography on display, with Lee making sure the action is crisp and clear. The standout for me features Feng and HK action legend Norman Chui fending off a group of assassins while the building around them is torn to pieces.
Speaking of Chui, it’s great seeing him back on screen. While his screen time is limited he (and his stuntman) still gets involved in the action, with him being every inch the bad ass at the prime age of 72. Anyone who grew up watching him in his prime in the likes of Duel to the Death (1983) or Hong Kong Godfather (1985) will be more than pleased by his performance here.
Chui isn’t the only Hong Kong movie legend to make an appearance, with the late, great Kenneth Tsang and the seemingly ageless Ray Lui giving proceedings a higher sense of quality than what lesser known actors may have bring. Screen veteran Jun Hu also impresses as a duplicitous Kung Fu master, who may or not be an ally to Qi.
Of the younger members of the cast, William Feng proves to be perfectly photogenic as the lead hero. While the role doesn’t call for him to stretch himself dramatically, the handsome actor has just the right look for the brooding hero, and is suitably energetic in his action scenes. Feng is a Daniel Lee regular, having previously appeared in White Vengeance and Dragon Blade.
Leading lady Gina Chen likewise serves the material well, being absolutely beautiful as well as getting ample chance to show off her more dramatic side, although it must be said that no one will be winning awards for their performances in Code of the Assassins. It’s not that any one puts in a bad performance, but a film like this isn’t the type that is normally appointed awards. The acting is of a heightened variety and is entirely in line with this genre of film.
Code of the Assassins has one too many issues to be a bonafide classic, but it is a visually stunning martial arts film that is filled with enough exciting set pieces to more than satisfy action lovers. It is streaming now on Hi-YAH! but for those who prefer more physical means of media will be glad to know that it will be coming out on Blu Ray and DVD at the end of the month.
Plot: 3.5/5 Acting: 3.5/5 Action: 3.5/5 Overall: 3.5/5