As far as action packed kung fu movies go, Empire of Assassins is mostly competent, but uninspired. The fact that competence is the best it can brag of is not evidence of greatness, which is not to say that the film lacks any entertainment value.
The tale unfolds mostly around the fortress of the fuzzily defined Emperor Wang. A young man, Zhang Tien Bao (Miu Tse) sneaks into the emperor's suite to kill him, in vengeance for a crime committed long ago. Tien Bao is no match for the emperor's superior fighting skills and is forced to flee, along the way fighting with the emperor's daughter Yu Fing, his adopted son Ren Yi (Li Yuan) and his nephew, the bald headed killer Renze.
Eventually, Tien Bao is caught in an oubliette, but soon escapes with the help of Yu Fing, who believes that he is the young man to whom she was betrothed as a girl, but since presumed dead. But is he really Tien Bao, and therefore Ren Yi's older brother, or just an imposter planning to kill both Ren Yi and the emperor? In the end, who cares? The film is a really just a series of martial arts, escape and battle set pieces, with a few bits of stray humor thrown in, and the plot is merely a skeleton frame upon which to hang these scenes. It really isn't important whether Tien Bao is really Tien Bao, or is in fact an imposter, though a lot of screen time is dedicated to Yu Fing trying to find this out, often by quite unethical means. It doesn't really matter whether Ren Yi comes to believe the truth of it or not. These aren't actual people that the audience is asked to care about, more cutouts or archetypes that are set to act and react to each other to move the plot along a little bit more and give us another opportunity for one more epic tussle.
And that's really the problem with Empire of Assassins. It only nods toward characterization or depth, but no one is fooled into thinking that the filmmakers care about this. And yet, they don't compensate by going the other way and offering us a truly outrageous and innovative martial arts movie. There is no connection to reality here, as one might see in a Tony Jaa film, tenuous though it might be. Nor is there a sense of fun and spectacle as one might find in a Jackie Chan film. Nor is there a feeling of majesty, or wonder at the fight scenes, as one might find in some of the artier, high end examples of the genre. The fighting is entirely stylized, and appears to be technical quite accomplished, but lacks inspiration. This is all stuff we've seen dozens of times before, done better and in a more interesting framework. And the cheesiness of the sound design (sixties Batman style POWs and BANGs, one almost expected to see the words spelled out on screen with bright yellow letters) and the dreadfully performed spoken dialogue (in both the English and Mandarin) only exacerbate this sense of unreality.
With unexceptional, bland characters, a less than engaging story, and action that is competent but not terribly interesting, there is not much to cheer over here. Having said all that, Empire of Assassins is not without merit. The performers all do well enough, though not much is asked of them. This is basically melodrama with jabs and kicks, and strong performances are not necessary for it to work. The film does not aspire to be anything other than it is. There is a real sense that the producers understand the throw away nature of the story and characters, and are simply interested in presenting a bit of action and excitement with as little getting in the way as possible. As far as it goes, the film accomplishes this, but this is a low bar to set for oneself. Rent this one only.