Donnie Yen, left, and Takeshi Kaneshiro star in Dragon.
Can a trained killer learn to control his violent instinct? Can a brutal criminal be rehabilitated?
These weighty themes provide the underpinning to director Peter Chan’s epic “Dragon” (also known as “Wu xiá” overseas), a masterfully rendered martial arts thriller that is so stylish and clever that it is worth searching for either On Demand, on web-based movie services or in local theaters. “Dragon” completed a one-week run at Tampa’s Britton Theater recently, and – with luck – it may show up at a Pinellas venue in the coming weeks.
Set in a small Chinese village in 1917, the film opens with an idyllic domestic scene. Liu Jinxi, a village craftsman, appears to lead a quiet, peaceful life with is wife and two children. The serenity is short-lived, however: Mere minutes into the film, the village’s general store is visited by two notorious gangsters.
Liu, who happens to be in the store, seems reluctant at first but ultimately confronts the criminals in an electrifying martial arts fight sequence, breathtakingly choreographed and concurrently graceful and brutal. Liu manages to save the shopkeeper's life, killing both assailants in the process.
While both the village residents and the local magistrate consider Liu a hero – particularly when it is revealed that one of the bandits happens to be among the government's 10 most wanted fugitives – detective Xu Baijiu is convinced that a commoner like Liu couldn’t have possibly prevailed against two sadistic, trained fighters.
Xu begins a methodical investigation that includes a fascinating reconstruction of the brawl. The director integrates elements of police procedural films to show how the meticulous Xu visualizes the events.
Throughout his inquiry, Xu reveals as much about his own obsession with following the letter of the law as he does about Liu’s secret past. The detective’s fanatical quest for justice eventually draws the attention of China’s criminal underworld – namely, a group of ruthless warriors of Tangut descent known as the 72 Demons.
While the martial arts mayhem is splendidly executed, Chan does not drown out the narrative with gratuitous scenes of violence. Emphasis is placed on character study and plot, with pacing that is unhurried and focused. The lush cinematography captures the epic tone of the film.
Donnie Yen stars as Liu Jinxi. Because the character conceals an undisclosed history, in a sense, Yen is tasked with performing two separate roles. As husband and father, he is humble and genial; as a skilled martial artist, he is disciplined and intimidating. Yen underscores the juxtaposition between two personalities to reflect Liu’s inner turmoil.
Takeshi Kaneshiro portrays Xu Baijiu, the compulsive detective versed in physiology and acupuncture. Kaneshiro’s excellent performance paints a picture of a man driven to obsession and haunted by his past.
Playing Liu Jinxi's wife Ayu is Tang Wei. Chan has shrewdly led the audience into viewing Liu through Ayu’s eyes. Wei’s skilled portrayal exposes the character’s fears of abandonment without diminishing her strength of will.
Jimmy Wang plays the Master, leader of the 72 Demons. Wang is menacing on screen, a harsh archetype of a man lacking any trace of decency.
Chan has stealthily concealed a morality play in this martial arts film, highlighting the dramatic struggles amongst its well-developed characters. “Dragon” meditatively questions the extent to which one may reshape identity – and to what degree basic instinct controls one’s actions. Beyond the stunning action sequences, “Dragon” succeeds due to its introspective tone, its engaging script and its compelling characters brilliantly brought to life by excellent actors.