In Films by David Watson

When mild-mannered paper maker Liu Jinxi (Donnie Yen) intervenes during the robbery of the village general store by two notorious bandits he arouses the suspicions of inquisitive detective Xu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) who’s been sent to investigate the case by the local magistrate.

Discovering that one of the dead bandits is in fact one of the most dangerous, wanted men in China, Xu realises that there is more to the shy Liu than meets the eye.  Deducing that his mastery of martial arts marks him out as a member of the notorious criminal clan the 72 Demons, Xu begins to investigate Liu, intending to bring him to justice for a brutal massacre committed years before.  But Xu’s snooping draws the attention of the 72 Demons who have their own score to settle with Liu…

Blending exhilarating martial arts mayhem and the detective story with a plot not dissimilar to A History Of Violence, director Peter Chan’s Dragon, with its analytical protagonist and his intuitive dissection of crime scenes, is closer to Guy Ritchie’s almost Steampunk take on Sherlock Holmes, Xu’s stylish mental recreations of the film’s opening battle reminiscent of Robert Downey Jr.’s Holmes and his visualising of events or Gil Grissom’s reconstructions on CSI.

More mannered and philosophical than your average chop socky flick, Dragon is as much a contemplation of identity, morality, redemption and the sins of the past as it is blistering action film.  Liu’s former bad guy, sickened by the crimes he has committed, has renounced violence and lives anonymously, trying to make amends for his past deeds.  But can he ever really balance the karmic books?  Does he deserve the chance to?  That’s the question that obsesses detective Xu, a man determined to rigidly uphold the law and dispense justice whatever the consequences, who has had to curb his natural empathy after his compassion for a suspect led to tragedy.  By the end of the film both men will have to break their vows and compromise their personal morality to serve a greater good.

An accomplished martial artist, Donnie Yen’s never been the subtlest of actors but here plays to his strengths acquitting himself well as both warrior and humble everyman while Takeshi Kaneshiro’s Xu is a classically brooding detective hero transplanted to rural China.  A major attraction for martial arts fanboys however is the casting of the legendary Jimmy Wang Yu as Liu’s estranged father, the villainous Master of the 72 Demons, a despicably evil boo-hiss bad guy who provides a respectful nod to the classic martial arts films of the Shaw brothers and Golden Harvest.

With its bone-crunching fight scenes and moody rumination on the nature of morality and redemption, Dragon is both a knowing and sincere celebration of the martial arts genre.