Two hardened criminals drop in to rob a store. They beat the daylights out of the proprietor, his wife. An employee cowers behind a counter, until he summons up his guts and hurls himself at the brutes. And as others look on, he bungles and stumbles his way into killing them both.
But was he stumbling? Were those misplaced blows and sword-slashes accidents? Or does this fellow have skills, “A History of Violence”?
That’s the killer opening of “Dragon,” a fun collision of that David Cronenberg film, traditional over-the-top Hong Kong martial arts pictures and sort of a “C.S.I.: Yunnan Province.” Because even in 1917 China, there are investigators working for the government who can examine physical evidence, draw logical scientific conclusions and recreate in their minds what really happened.
That’s what Xu Bai-ju (Takeshi Kaneshiro) can do. A bespectacled detective, he comes to the rural village where Liu Jin-xi (Donnie Yen) has somehow brought down two notorious killers. He’s an accidental hero, a simple paper-maker, husband and father, “a good man,” the locals say. And Xu-Bai-ju isn’t having it.
He examines the bodies, comically and thoroughly — “Palms, no sign of fatal wound…’Insteps, no sign of fatal wound.”
The detective questions people, looks over the paper shop where the mayhem took place, and notices shoe prints on the pillars, even the ceiling. Somebody with mad martial arts skills was mixed up in all this.
Xu Bai-ju narrates the case, an obsessed man who grows more obsessed the more he digs. He is an expert on pressure points, an acupuncturist of skill. He senses a Qi energy surrounding Liu Jin-xi, and he’s so wrapped up in proving it that he listens to his alter ego (he envisions another version of himself as he’s visualizing the case) and tests the guy, nearly killing him a couple of times. His boss tells him “Let it go.” But he won’t.
Perhaps, like us, he recognizes the great martial artist, actor and action choreographer Yen (“Iron Monkey,” “Hero”). Sooner or later, if the detective doesn’t kill the guy, Liu Jin-Xi will reveal himself.
Peter Ho-Sun Chan’s film is at its most entertaining during this confrontation and its investigation take place — its first hour. Kaneshiro (“Red Cliff”) is effective as a
haunted Javert-like figure, a man who believes “Only physiology and the law don’t lie.” His determination to be a stickler for the truth and nothing but the truth has some justification — a man who could kill like that must have a dark past. But you know it’s going to have consequences, which turn up in the film’s third act.
Yen is an under-rated performer and choreographer. He has some of Jackie Chan’s charm, with sharper martial arts skills, and has Jet Li-like skills, with a more engaging screen presence. He stages and battles through a trio of great brawls in “Dragon” (“Wu Xia”), sword and knife fights, a duel in a barn filled with unruly oxen.
“Dragon” becomes a much more conventional gravity-defying chop socky picture as the “C.S.I.” part of the story fades into the background. It’s still one of the best movies of the genre of recent years. And since American cultural exports to China plainly inspired it, it’s only fair, and smart business, for an American studio to import it here.
MPAA Rating: R for violence
Cast: Donnie Yen, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Wei Tang
Credits: Directed by Peter Ho-Sun Chan, written by Aubrey (Oi Wah) Lam. A Radius/Weinstein Co. release.
Running time: 1:37