Blending old-school kung-fu elements with a touch of noir and a plot that recalls A History Of Violence, Peter Chan’s Dragon is a drama about redemption masquerading as a martial-arts movie. This is mildly disappointing, since the film stars Donnie Yen (who also choreographed), and he can feel wasted onscreen whenever he isn’t engaging in impossible, wire-assisted action feats. Yen’s strengths have never been in his expressiveness, and Dragon plods when it centers on dramatic struggles, then leaps exhilaratingly to life whenever the fighting begins.
Yen plays a paper worker leading a quiet existence in a small village in 1917 China with his wife (Tang Wei) and two sons. He happens to be in the general store when two bandits attack it, and he takes them out with what initially appears to be luck and bravery. Sent to investigate, detective Takeshi Kaneshiro is able to divine from the scene that Yen actually knew exactly what he was doing, and discovers he’s a martial-arts expert and a former member of a bloodthirsty group called the 72 Demons, which continues to terrorize under the leadership of “the Master” (Jimmy Wang, whose The One Armed Swordsman is a major influence here). Yen’s act and Kaneshiro’s desire to bring him to justice draws the attention of the Demons, who soon come calling.
The choice to divide the film between its two superstar leads relieves the impassive Yen of some of the acting burdens, but makes for an uneasy balancing act between period crime drama and kung-fu flick, with Kaneshiro’s acupuncture expert offering up his own moody but less compelling backstory about tamping down his empathy to better serve the law. While the attempts at genre-bending and reworking classic tropes are admirable, the fight scenes provide all the high points, from a battle in a barn amid snorting water buffalo to an encounter that finds people chasing each other across the village rooftops. Wang’s arrival and the reveal of his ties to Yen lead up to the best showdown and the one that finally earns the film’s angst over identity and destiny. Dragon plays off and engages with the history of kung-fu films, but it only really sings when it’s content to be one itself.