09:08 - 2nd May 2013, by NEO Staff


The opening scroll in Dragon (which was released across Asia under its exotically native title of Wu Xia) introduces us to the film's setting: it is 1917, and we are placed in a small village called Yunnan, located at the south-western edge of China. Donnie Yen plays Liu Jinxi - a friendly vegetarian who lives with his wife and two young sons. One day, Liu finds himself in the middle of a robbery at a local store. To the owner's surprise, our man comes to the rescue, and kills the bandits (as well as lopping off an ear in garishly gruesome CGI detail). A subsequent tribunal finds Liu to be a hero and leaves him to get on with his life.

However, a well-timed and lethal punch to one of the thug's foreheads serves as a clue to a handsome and resourceful detective called Xu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who has been scratching a little past the surface of the case. He comes to the conclusion that Liu is actually living pseudonymously as a family man, and is, in fact, Tang Long - the former second-in-command of a group called the 72 Demons. The life-destroying blow in question is a trademark of this gang, who were once a feared and merciless group that pillaged, raped and slaughtered their way through China's neighbouring Xixia Kingdom. Should this be true, then Xu has enough evidence to convict Liu of past crimes.

From here, the remaining members of the 72 Demons are informed of their former man's whereabouts and become involved. This includes an appearance by a female fighter (Kara Hui), who more than holds her own against Yen in Dragon's most memorable fight sequence. Indeed, it is the hand-to-hand combat which wins this film most of its favour. Yen also served as the action director in Dragon, and he stages some impressive moments, bringing back memories of the earliest days of the Cantonese boom in kung-fu craziness (this project was initially devised as an homage to the 1967 Shaw Brothers classic One Armed Swordsman).

The acting honours belong to Takashi Kaneshiro - the star of House of Flying Daggers (2004), The Warlords (2007), Red Cliff (2008) and many more. His evolving investigation into Yen's real identity provides Dragon with a depth over and above its inevitable battles and allows for a human drama that evolves from a considered approach to characterisation. Dragon is written by an old hand in Oi Wah Lam - the pen behind the impressive heroic bloodshed epic Purple Storm (1999) and The Warlords. Although not breaking any new ground in the genre, there is fun to be had from the narrative's various subplots (especially Kaneshiro's unravelling suspicions), and a general lack of clutter. Far too many current entries in the chopsocky stakes have become bogged down by a plethora of story threads and a bombast of onscreen personalities (such as Legendary Amazons and the recent Painted Skin sequel). Consider Dragon a welcome exception.

Also of note is Peter Chan on directorial duties. Perhaps best known as the producer of The Eye series and for helming The Warlords (a few holdovers from that feature have hopped aboard Dragon!), this is a slight change of pace for the filmmaker.

Whilst he fails to capture the sweeping widescreen beauty of One Armed Swordsman, or such other obvious influences as The Young Master (1980) and Once Upon a Time in China (1991), there is an attempt to at least pay credence to their scope.

Unfortunately, Chan's photography is often muddy, lacking the colourful dazzle of the old Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest masterworks. That said, loyalists of the genre will applaud the references to past glories in Dragon and doubtlessly enjoy spotting them - including a nod to One Armed Swordsman itself.

Of course, we should also comment on Yen himself. Never the greatest of actors, Dragon shows - once again - that whilst the screen legend may be a first class physical specimen and a marvellous martial artist, he is a frequently wooden cinematic presence. Probably still best highlighted by his role as a villain in Once Upon a Time in China II (1992), Yen is not the most likely candidate as a sympathetic 'hero' - even when his role is a tad more emotionally complex (as it is here). His cold demeanour seems unavoidable and it is tough to warm to him. Despite being perfectly acceptable in Dragon, and indulging in his trademark choreographed violence with admirable aplomb, Yen has still to find the role which might prove his skills as an excellent thespian.

With CGI interludes, which prove distracting and unnecessary, and a suspiciously social-conservative streak - possibly to appease the Chinese audience - Dragon is not quite the masterpiece that the reviews from its 2011 Asian release indicated. A blockbuster in China (over $15 million in its opening week is nothing to be sniffed at!), Dragon falters with some dodgy dialogue and a brutally unsubtle thematic of punishment and state-sacrifice. "Men are no different from animals but this man was worse than an animal," claims Yen in one particular dialogue howler, whilst a low-key finale finishes the film on a surprisingly sombre note.

Nevertheless, with so few Oriental outings making it to UK theatres, it is still well worth checking out Dragon. An above average contemporary effort, this never quite kicks enough ass to be considered a classic, but it serves up the action and impresses with a breakneck speed. Perhaps next time, though, Yen might consider taking on the bad guy role - it compliments his stony stare and deadly demeanour so much better than these heroic turns can ever manage...

Not quite a fire-breathing behemoth, but this kung-fu epic certainly singes the screen during some choice sequences of brutal brilliance. For the occasional hot-under-the-collar moment, we advise checking this Dragon out.
SCORE: 0/5
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