Peter Chan’s Dragon (titled Wu Xia for the Chinese release) blends a detective narrative with martial arts action without doing great service to either genre, but as an unlikely hybrid of influences it is enjoyable. The film tracks one Liu Jin-Xi (Donnie Yen,) a paper craftsman under suspicion from detective-cum-acupuncturist Xu Bai-Jiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) after he inexplicably fights off gang members attacking his town. Xu Bai-Jiu rightfully believes his victory was no lucky accident, and through a series of inventive CSI style deconstructions, examining the impact of each blow from a physiological perspective, decides that this humble craftsman has a more colourful past.
The film has problems. Firstly, Yen lacks charisma as an actor, and whilst Kaneshiro takes some of the attention away from this by providing a more nuanced performance as his co-star, ideally the action-lead should have a fair amount of charm too. To make a contemporary comparison, Tony Jaa, star of the Ong Bak films, got away with his lack of screen presence for a while by way of the sheer impressiveness of his action sequences. Yen’s fight sequences in this film are too few and too uninspired to carry him in the same way. Any martial arts film, even one posing as a detective story, should have a stand-out sequence, and Dragon, bar maybe an inventive few seconds involving a bull in a confined space (stables, not china shop) lacks anything remarkable.
Part of the problem is a visible struggle between Yen’s attempts to choreograph scenes that are kinetic but possible to follow, and Chan’s urge to dress up the battles with showy computer generated enhancements. At points this combination works, resulting in some well organised set pieces reminiscent of the classic Wu Xia pictures referenced by the original title, infused with the modern approach of slow motion trickery and more complex camera movement, but a lot of the time it is just a bit too busy, the effects distracting from the balletic quality of Yen’s classical approach to fight choreography.
Although the action disappoints, visually the film is a treat. The colourful cinematography of Chan’s director of photography Jake Pollack, a westerner working in Asia who is perhaps looking to fill the shoes of the legendary Christopher Doyle, is beautiful. Pollack’s photography in this film brings to mind the luscious widescreen compositions that Hong Kong contemporary Johnnie To’s films are famed for. The soundtrack too is reminiscent of some of To’s more eclectically soundtracked works like Sparrow or Throw Down, pleasingly jumping around musical genre from expected traditional Chinese songs to guitar-led rock or even Western inspired ditties at will.
The narrative, whilst taking many expectedly overplotted, nonsensical turns, involving gang disputes, patriarchal disagreements, and eventual redemption through the (literal) cutting of familial ties, drags at just under two hours. Fans of Yen and his colossally successful Yip Man films may find enough to enjoy here in the mix of sword and fist fare and paranoiac detective plotting, but those unaccustomed to the coloured history of Wu Xia might just find a somewhat hokey, cumbersomely plotted exercise in need of a little more action.