LITTLE ROCK Despite its unimaginative English title, Dragon (Wu xia) is a lively, occasionally creative martial arts film that asks a viewer to revel in more than mere bloodletting or bone breaking.
Veteran martial arts star Donnie Yen, who also choreographs the battles, doesn’t simply punch or kick. He finds odd but convincing ways of making sure that bad guys learn that their masters have not indeed taught them well. It also doesn’t hurt that Yen has acting chops on par with his speed and agility. He was equally assured playing the hero in Iron Monkey and the villain in Shanghai Knights (where he played most of the role in English, no less). This may explain why he’s still an action star as he nears 50.
In Dragon, Yen plays a quiet paper maker named Liu Jin-xi who’s beloved by everyone in his village. Even though he’s been there less than a decade, his craft has saved the town’s economy.
Thankfully, director Peter Chan knows that we probably don’t want to see an entire film about the wonders of paper in 1917 China. When a duo of armed thugs break into Jin-xi’s shop and go on a rampage, the merchant dispatches them in such a resounding way that the two wind up wounding each other with their blades instead of him. Since they’ve foolishly taken on Yen, the final outcome of the match is never in doubt.
When local detective Xu Bai-jiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro, Chungking Express) starts investigating, the fatal butt kicking that Jin-xi delivers seems even more impressive. One of the thugs was a candidate for China’s Most Wanted before he decided to rob the wrong shop. The unusually analytical cop knows full well that an ordinary salesman wouldn’t have survived the encounter, much less stopped the crime.
Detective Xu is right, but his Javert-like determination could lead to disaster. The town is happy that Jin-xi is making paper and dispatching the occasional bad guys, so they see no point in digging up unpleasant things in his past. Furthermore, the investigation draws attention for Jin-xi’s old Master (Yu Wang). Just as Xu is slow to forgive crimes, the Master doesn’t like defections.
If the basic storyline is familiar, Chan and Yen know how to make the fights gripping and dazzling. The speed and skill these combatants have is simply jaw-dropping, and cinematographers Yiu-Fai Lai and Jake Pollock find dozens of striking ways to shoot the mayhem and drama that accompanies it.
There’s plenty to look at in Dragon even if severed body parts aren’t your most treasured sight. The futility of grudges and possibility that people can become more than their transgressions are as much a part of Dragon as Yen’s astonishing fist play.
Dragon (Wu xia) 85 Cast: Donnie Yen, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Wei Tang, Yu Wang, Kara Hui, Kenji Tanigaki Director: Peter Chan Rating: R, for violence Running time: 98 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 31 on 12/14/2012
Print Headline: Dragon (Wu xia)