09:00 - 12th October 2013, by David West


In 1917 in a quiet village in Yunnan Province, two wanted fugitives attempt to rob the local store. Their violent hold-up is thwarted by the intervention of the town's unassuming papermaker, Liu Jinxi (Donnie Yen). In a desperate struggle, the two criminals wind up dead while Liu escapes with only a few scrapes and bruises. Police detective Xu Baijiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is convinced Liu is not who he appears to be, and relentlessly pursues the truth, unaware that his investigation will attract the attention of the notorious criminal gang called The 72 Demons.

Do not be too quick to judge Peter Chan's film by the rather generic title - even in China, it was simply called Wu Xia, meaning 'martial arts'. Chan expands the boundaries of his chosen genre, mixing in a police procedural plot alongside the kung fu thrills. The action scenes come in the first and third acts, while the middle chunk follows the obsessive Xu as he digs into Liu's past. A common failing of many martial arts films has been their simplistic delineation of good and evil. Witness the films of Chang Cheh in the 1970s, in which the Han Chinese heroes are noble and honourable, while their Manchu enemies are despicable thugs. Dragon offers a more complex morality.

Due to a past trauma, Xu is a man without empathy. He sees the world in absolute terms - if a crime has been committed, it is his duty to bring those responsible to justice, regardless of their character or circumstances. However, his single-minded devotion to this belief has terrible consequences for Liu Jinxi, a man who simply wants a quiet life with his family. Similarly, Liu is not a traditional, clean cut hero; the darkness of his past hangs over him, and the script explores the concepts of karma and redemption. Is someone forever tainted by the crimes they committed, or can they change? It's great to see a kung fu film that tackles big ideas and still delivers on the action front.

Donnie served as action director, assisted by Yan Hua and Kenji Tanigaki. The three of them dig into the vaults to bust out classic moves from the Hung Kuen style - the kung fu system popularised at Shaw Brothers in the 1970s. The high speed choreography showcases plenty of Leopard Fist techniques from Hung Kuen, as well as a little Mantis style and some Eagle Claw.

It would be remiss not to mention the top notch cast of old and new stars. As Liu's wife Ayu, Tang Wei has a wonderful, natural assurance, communicating powerful emotions in simple, subtle moments. By contrast, kung fu movie legend Wang Yu chews up the screen as the Master of The 72 Demons. The veteran delivers a performance of unstoppable malevolence - he first appears enveloped by shadows, growling like a hungry tiger. The magnificent Kara Hui plays one of the top fighters in The 72 Demons. Now in her early 50s, Kara still kicks ass and her battle with Liu is thrilling.

Dragon belongs in any list of Donnie Yen's best work. Highly recommended.
SCORE: 4/5
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