Two bandits are killed during an attempted robbery by Liu Jin-xi, a simple village paper maker (martial arts superstar Donnie Yen). The terrified village artisan succeeds in defeating mens’ violent assault by blind luck. However, an investigating detective Xu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) comes to believe there is more to the case.
Happy to avoid the red tape incurred by further investigation the local magistrate is happy to proclaim Liu a hero and take credit for an easy legal victory. Detective Xu however, has an unbending code and a rigid commitment to the letter of the law. Determined to look further, Xu sets about delving into the Liu’s history, interrogating him, his family, and villagers.
To describe the plot in much more detail would be unfair. Suffice to say, Liu is not who he seems and Xu’s investigation will have far reaching and very violent results.
Some of you will already recognise the set up of this 2011 film as being rather similar to David Cronenberg’s 2005 thriller A History of Violence. In fact Dragon (originally titled Wu Xia) is very nearly a remake, transposing the plot from contemporary America to the Republican China of 1917. Peter Chan’s exciting film is not merely a carbon copy, but also takes in influences from modern procedural crime dramas, and in detective Xu it has a figure in the mould of Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic consulting detective Sherlock Holmes.
The apparently ramshackle fight between the bandits and Lui that opens the film is a magnificent setpiece. Lui doesn’t so much fight as stumble into the firing line and flail around. It is rather like a fight scene from Jackie Chan’s classic Drunken Master, but performed straight with no clowning. Later when Xu examines the scene, the same fight is replayed again but extreme slow motion reveals details the naked eye could not catch.
Whilst sticking quite close to its unacknowledged source Dragon is less concerned with exploring modern concepts of celebrity and Cronenbergian ideas of mental transformation and identity. Chan’s film is more interested in justice, rehabilitation and honour. Xu’s unbending application of the law has its roots in a past tragedy, but he is also in denial about the corruption of the system within which he operates. Liu, well it would be giving too much away to say what is really going on in his past, but Dragon gets very, very dark as it progresses. What appears to be a light martial arts thriller becomes a mysterious Asian neo-noir.
Unlike many contemporary Chinese martial arts films, which fail to satisfy due to over-complex plots, unconvincing fantasy violence, and an over-abundance of wire work, Dragon tells a complex story in a direct and comprehensible way with rich and interesting characters. The ratio of action to plot is actually relatively low, but the film’s few fight scenes go for quality over quantity and are a real joy.
Combining graceful aerial acrobatics with crunching body shots, the fights are both aesthetically beautiful and convincingly lethal. When character’s pull out a sword, these are not wobbly tinfoil rapiers but vicious looking (if ornate) meat cleavers.
Dragon does not go for gritty realism exactly, this is still a film where people can deflect sword blows with their necks, but instead of using FX to enhance mediocre martial artists Chan uses them to show just how deadly a perfectly executed punch or kick can be with similar techniques to those used to track and detail bullet trajectories in David O’Russells Three Kings – or any of the various CSI series – Chan shows bones breaking; internal organs rupturing; eight-ball haemorrhages blooming in eyeballs. You are unlikely to wish to get into an argument with Donnie Yen anytime soon after watching this.
Yen, who also choreographs the fight scenes, is one of the finest action stars in Asian cinema, but here he gets to show off his acting chops as well, completely convincing as the bumbling everyman he seems to be at the beginning of the film. An introductory breakfast scene where he sits around a table with his wife and two sons has some of the feel of the family scenes in Jaws (no higher praise can be given). Yet when the story darkens he is able to make Lui a frighteningly ambiguous character.
Co-lead Kaneshiro makes Xu a much more conflicted character than the standard justice obsessed cop archetype. If there is a major flaw in the film, it is that it appears that some of the detective’s back-story has been pruned back from the longer 116 minute Hong Kong version for this 98 minute international cut. One key action his Xu takes about mid-way made no real sense to me. However, this isn’t enough to spoil the film.
Long time martial arts fans will be in seventh heaven when Jimmy Wang Wu the original one-armed swordsman appears. Jimmy Wang is perhaps the original martial arts film star and even at nearly 70 years. He is a formidable presence.
Dragon (a nonsensical and generic western title) is one of the better Chinese action films of the last few years and a profound antidote to the bloated Wuxia epics we have seen recently. It deserved to kick its way out of the martial arts ghetto to a broad international audience. Sadly this was not to be, but the film is ripe for discovery on home entertainment formats and streaming.
This review originally appeared on Screenjabber.com