When two notorious bandits threaten the life of an elderly shopkeeper, local villager Liu Jin-xi intervenes and kills both attackers in the process. This incident soon attracts the notice of Xu Bai-jiu, a tenacious detective who is intrigued by this humble, unassuming local hero. Xu’s investigation leads him to the possibility that Liu is not who he seems... but those suspicions threaten to draw in the most feared members of a criminal clan.
A generic-sounding title like ‘Dragon’ doesn’t promise much (it was originally known as ‘Wu Xia’ in China), but perhaps surprisingly this proves to be more than just another period wushu flick. The combat choreography is impressive, if overdone on occasion, but it’s certainly above-average in terms of camerawork and inventiveness; furthermore, the storyline is in itself capable of holding its own. Xu’s presence feels odd at first given the setting and circumstances, but it adds a film noir-style murder/mystery element in that he employs what we today refer to as forensic investigations to make sense of the evidence before him.
Much of this evidence is centred on martial arts and the feats that its practitioners are capable of, but allowing some artistic licence for the stylised portrayal of that aspect helped with my enjoyment of the film. Many of the moves, and the physiological effects that Xu attributed to them, sounded a little far-fetched to me but in all honesty it goes with the territory as far as action films are concerned. Quite wisely in my opinion, Dragon makes use of not just the combat set-pieces but the murder-mystery angle to keep the story moving: there’s more going on under the surface, and the film really benefits from exploring them.
Xu has an interesting background in not only his personal obsession with studying martial arts from a scientific perspective, but also in his early life and how that and his previous cases influence the way he goes about his work; their significance comes into play quite noticeably when he is forced to make some difficult decisions about where the investigation might lead. Similarly, Liu clearly has some skeletons in his closet as well and the potential consequences that these secrets will have on his young family are made plain. Rather than being just a story about revealing the hidden truth behind innocent bystander-turned-local hero, Dragon is also a story of loyalty, trust, redemption and questioning the morality of the law.
Quite often martial arts action films leave me with a ‘seen one and you’ve seen them all’ feeling so it’s often the strength of performances and storyline that make one stand out from the crowd. Dragon boasts some experienced talent from the likes of Donnie Yen as Liu, Tang Wei as his devoted wife, Takeshi Kaneshiro as Xu, Kara Hui’s female warrior and, in one of several nods to the film One Armed Swordsman, veteran actor Jimmy Wang as her husband and feared wushu master. The calibre of the cast means that this films pulls off some surprisingly powerful moments of drama amongst the gore, lending weight and meaning to the unflinching violence.
In terms of presentation, there’s also a fair amount to appreciate. I wasn’t completely sold on the use of a contemporary rock-orientated soundtrack for an historical movie but the locations used in filming were quite beautiful. Not only does Liu’s idyllic village home provide a dramatic backdrop for the fight scenes with its forested mountains and plunging waterfalls, but these locales are spectacular in their own right and this additional effort on the part of the production team helps lend an A-list feel.
The pacing of the film is very well done overall, and it knows when to back off from the CSI-style flashbacks and “is he/isn’t he?” exposition concerned with Liu’s shady origins. During its second half the action takes centre stage, and we’re treated to chases over rooftops, a showdown in a village square and a one-on-one knife fight in a barn full of frightened, angry cattle (which is more serious than it sounds). The only noticeable misstep occurs in the final battle, which seems to disregard a more convincing potential resolution and instead opts for something that was implausible and somewhat anti-climatic.
I can just about forgive this lone stumble when the film as a whole combines old-fashioned wushu with other, more unexpected elements... namely those of criminal investigation and convincing character development. Fans of the martial arts genre will find much to enjoy here, but it brings enough extra to the table to appeal to those of us who demand a little more.