The Movie Waffler New Release Review - Dragon | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - Dragon

A wanted man struggles to keep his past life secret after committing an act of heroism.

Directed by: Peter Chan
Starring: Donnie Yen, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Wei Tang, Jimmy Yu Wang

Coming on like an early 20th Century China revision of 'A History of Violence', with the fragmented psychology of Cronenberg's film turned down and the chop-socky beat kick-downs turned up, this is the Martial Arts movie of the year.
When bandits attempt to extort money with menace from a general store, Liu Jin-xi (Yen), a mild mannered local man with a wife and kids, goes from cowering wretch to avenging angel. Killing the miscreants with hitherto unknown Martial Arts powers, he becomes a local hero. This act of heroism brings him to the attentions of Detective Xu Bai-Jiu (Kaneshiro) who, upon discovering one of the dead is an arch criminal wanted by the Government, begins to suspect that there is more than meets the eye to Liu. Is he an innocent hero who happened to be in the wrong place at the right time? Or is he really wanted outlaw Tang Long, second in command of notorious gang the 72 Demons?
For all of Donnie Yen's martial arts prowess, this is very much a quiet film bringing to the fore story and character. The fights are an organic part of the narrative and not a procession of Video Game next level baddies needing to be trounced before the next big bad guy arrives. He also has the acting chops to impress as mild amiable peasant and deadly Martial Arts menace, all the while with a hangdog face that reminds you of an Oriental Adam Sandler.
This is full of interesting character beats; Liu is a Vegetarian, an on the surface character trait that is seemingly inconsequential but pays off later once revelations about his past life are unveiled, (meat and butchery having a major undercurrent throughout the film). Xu Bai-Jiu also has a character tick that at first seems glib (he uses two acupuncture needles to regulate his heartbeat and to rid him of empathy, the result of an earlier poisoning due to an act of kindness) but becomes deeply melancholic when the reason why he is estranged from his wife becomes clear.
Director Chan's spatial mastery is also something to behold. The fight sequences are dour, painful and cleanly edited with a minimum recourse to wire work and CGI that has so hampered the physicality of modern martial arts cinema. He also has a genuine sense of place. The action takes place in a recognizable community, the veneration of Liu's act of heroism by the town is convincing and the vengeance wrought upon the village compelling.
If by the end we are in routine territory, it's only disappointing because what has gone before was so damn compelling. Although even in the climax you get an extended cameo from Jimmy Yu Lang (The original 'One Armed Swordsman') as leader of the 72 Demons, who not only is so hard swords bounce off him, but also is a nice nod to the martial arts cognoscenti in how Liu will expatiate his sins as Tang Long. All this is topped off with one of the most diabolical songs I have ever heard over the end credits.
It may seem all wrapped up at the end but when Liu Jin-Xi's wife repeats the words her ex husband said to her at the film's end are we to believe this as a moment of grace, that their lives will begin again? Or does a life of loneliness and abandonment await him?

Jason Abbey