Dragon, starring legendary performer Donnie Yen, is another entry in the Chinese genre of wuxia. For the uninitiated, that means this is a martial arts flick wherein the characters possess mystical powers allowing them to leap great distances, perform tremendous feats of strength, and even fly. Wuxia flicks tend to be simple morality tales spiced up with a metric ton of well-choreographed fighting. Dragon (its original Chinese title is simply “Wu Xia”) promises to deconstruct the wuxia film the way Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven deconstructed the western, but the filmmakers ultimately chicken out.
Donnie Yen (Ip Man, Hero) stars as Liu Jin-xi, a seemingly simple peasant in early twentieth century China. As the film begins, we find him living in a humble dwelling with a wife and two kids. Each morning he departs to work an inglorious job as the assistant to a papermaker in a nearby village. Now anyone who’s seen a Donnie Yen flick knows that there’s more than meets this eye with this insignificant peasant. It’s a testament to Yen’s ability as an actor that he’s still somehow convincing as a humble laborer despite his career as one of the best performers in Chinese cinema.
Our protagonist’s cover is exposed following an attempted robbery on his store. Two murderous thugs walk into the papermaker’s establishment and demand his money. When the papermaker resists, they attack him. In a comical sequence, Liu intervenes and fights…well, like a peasant. He flails his arms around and attempts to grapple with the men, but he doesn’t seem like a trained fighter at all. However, when the dust settles, the two criminals are dead, and there isn’t any explanation as to how it happened. It was as if their hearts simply stopped beating.
Word of this event intrigues a traveling detective (Takeshi Kaneshiro). He arrives in town and begins to conduct his own inquiry into events. Using novel scientific instruments and methods as if he were China’s answer to Sherlock Holmes, he deducts that Liu expertly killed both men while making it appear to witnesses as if it were all an accident. In one particularly well-filmed sequence, we see the detective reconstruct the original fight from a different angle, exposing all of Liu’s trickery. In the detective’s reconstructed version of the fight, we see Liu accomplishing inhuman feats of speed and strength.
The detective firmly believes that Liu killed the criminals and that he’s a fugitive in hiding. That conclusion requires a major deductive leap, but the detective believes that the only reason a mystical superhero would pretend to be a peasant is if he has a seriously dark secret in his past. The detective doesn’t care that no one in the community wants Liu to be arrested. He doesn’t care that Liu is well-liked, and he appears to be a fundamentally decent person. The detective adheres unerringly to the law, and he believes the law demands that Liu be apprehended.
These early scenes between Donnie Yen and Takeshi Kaneshrio are fantastic. Wuxia films tend to be straightforward morality tales, and yet the first act of Dragon takes on an ambiguous, noir-tinted vibe. Neither Liu nor the detective are absolutely wrong; the waters of morality are cloudy. The kind of dilemma presented here isn’t something we typically see in this genre. It’s bold.
All of the goodwill built up by that bold decision is thrown away in the film’s second half when thieves and murderers from Liu’s past return to drag him back into the fold. Liu and the detective put aside their differences and band together to fight the real villains as if they were in an ‘80s Hollywood buddy-cop movie. The clear-cut moral conflict of the final act is fine for a traditional wuxia film, but not for this film. The decision to relent in the second half begs the question: why waste so much time with the detective subplot if the filmmakers weren’t going to do something interesting with it?
The action here isn’t enough to save the picture. There simply isn’t enough of it. So much time is devoted to the story that when the story begins to disappoint, there’s really nothing that can save the picture. And while Donnie Yen is as good as ever, the martial arts choreography on display here is fairly average for a high-end martial arts flick.
In the end, we’re left with a movie that attempted to be innovative and groundbreaking, but wimped out. Dragon tries to do two very different things at once, and as a result, it ends up doing neither particularly well. Dragon is bold, but not bold enough.