(Directed by Peter Chan)
(Written by Aubrey Lam)
(Starring Donnie Yen, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Jimmy Wang Yu)
Plot: Liu Jinxi (Donnie Yen) rescues an elderly man from two vicious bandits, killing them in the process. This is investigated by Detective Xu Bai-Jiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who begins to suspect that Liu might be a bloodthirsty criminal himself. But how can he prove it? Also known as “Wuxia“.
Man, who dreams up these lame-ass titles? In China, apparently this was called “Wuxia“, which is about as lazy as can be if you understand the context. It’s no better than calling a World War II flick, “World War II” or “War“. Because westerners wouldn’t likely understand what Wuxia means, they changed it into “Dragon” in the West for marketing purposes, even though that has no context. There aren’t any dragons, there is no dragon parallel or dragon fighting stances. I’m pretty sure the word ‘dragon’ wasn’t even spoken. Yet it seems like every time there’s a super-generic title, the movie is bound to be pretty good. Or it will star Steven Seagal. But as “Dragon” does not have Steven Seagal, then you can be assured that it is a pretty good film.
“Dragon” is the result of what happens if you blend kung fu, a character drama, a police procedural and acupuncture in a single bowl of awesomeness, and then serve it with fine wine and ice cream. The end result? I orgasm all over this meal, ruining it for everyone. Er, wait…Um, I’m going to move on now. The set-up is similar to “A History of Violence“, with its protagonist achieving fame after disposing of two nasty killers. Unfortunately, said protagonist has a history…of violence…which he doesn’t want out in the open. The difference between “A History of Violence” and “Dragon“- besides the kung fu, the country, the time period, the genre…okay there are a lot of differences…- is the inclusion of the detective. This time around, it’s not other criminals who seek to uproot his past, but a man of the law. I liked this because it adds more to the suspense. If other killers tracked him down, we’d figure that Liu Jinxi can just kung fu them into oblivion. But another good guy? How is he going to get past him without resorting to violence? The moral ambiguity is heightened by the fact that Xu Bai-Jiu isn’t a typical hero himself. Whether Liu Jinxi is a reformed criminal or not, he has learned to embrace his human emotions, realizing their importance. Xu Bai-Jiu had an ugly incident in his own past that left him cynical. He has rejected his emotions and only believes in the Law. This works because there reaches a point where we’re not entirely sure whom we are supposed to be rooting for. Liu might be nicer, but soon we start to wonder if that’s just a facade. But if he’s innocent, then Xu is harassing a man who deserves better. This is a narrative that automatically generates tension without even trying. Luckily, the filmmakers DO try, so they find all kinds of ways to build suspense. Hell, I wasn’t sure where “Dragon” was going…at first. So even if it was temporary, I’m always thrilled when a movie can’t be predicted.
The first half primarily focuses on Xu’s investigation, but Liu takes the center stage during the second. Unfortunately, the story begins to become a little too conventional. When a gang of ruthless killers- lead by Jimmy Wang Yu himself- decide to enter the fray, thinking that Liu might be one of their former members, you know where the story ultimately will go. Fortunately, it handles this level of familiarity very well. Watching the characters interact is fun and there is a lot more action. Speaking of which, the choreography is superb. I wouldn’t call “Dragon” action packed, but it has enough combat sequences to qualify it as a martial arts film. Even though it’s not JUST a martial arts film. The highlight had to be when Donnie Yen takes on Kara Hui. It’s exciting, incredibly well choreographed and the ever changing locations were refreshing. The finale, which has an epic homage to Jimmy Wang Yu’s “One-Armed Swordsman“, also had me on the edge of my seat. The final battle isn’t just a good fight scene, it’s incredibly intense and atmospheric. I love how moody the cinematography is and how sinister the set looks. The cinematography in general is superb. There are plenty of gorgeous shots that compliment the tone. So even if the script starts to run out of inspiration, the rest of the movie is able to make up for it.
But for me, “Dragon” succeeded not just because it was good, but because it was different enough. I liked how the detective would recreate various scenes in his head, but they didn’t just re-use that same scene. In fact, his skills might be sharp, but gets a lot of the details wrong. That kind of stuff might not be completely original, but I can’t think of any instance where I’ve seen that in a kung fu flick- off the top of my head anyway. I liked how they used acupuncture and how it wasn’t the kung fu badass who was using it. The use of ‘chi’ was surprisingly creative, primarily because it’s not over-used, but it added so much to the characters. Any objective flaws? Well, I didn’t like how they used fade-outs for a lot of the transitions. They just seemed kind of awkward for some reason. I suppose the first half was sort of slow paced, but I didn’t think it was boring either. I suppose many might find the second half to be a letdown, but I personally thought it was cool, even if it wasn’t offering anything new. The guy who directed this had previously done “The Warlords” (with Jet Li) and even though that film borrowed plenty of familiar elements, it somehow made them unique. For me, “Dragon” was the same way. It’s highly entertaining, but I haven’t seen many films of the same genre like it.
Violence: Rated R. It can be pretty violent.
Overall: “Dragon” was really good. I personally loved it.