There's some confusion that arises from the title of this latest Chinese martial arts film - both in the original Chinese and in the Western alternative. The Chinese title "Wu Xia" is the genre name for all this type of historical, often romantic, martial arts dramas from China - but any chance of this film being good enough to somehow represent the whole genre falls far short. The Western title is also strange, as there is never any reference to the central character being likened to a dragon - the only reason I can think of for the choice of word is to make people think of Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" that exploded the Wuxia genre into Western consciousness in 2000. The dragon here is also hidden, but comparisons with that great film (and the excellent run of films that followed it to our cinema screens, including Zhang Yimou's brilliant "Hero" and "The House of Flying Daggers") are harmful as well. It not a patch on those films in any respect, visually, story or performance wise, and ten years on this feels a lot like treading water.
Donnie Yen plays Liu Jinxi, a simple paper maker and family man living in 1917 rural China, who gets caught up in a robbery of the local general store and through supposed blind luck manages to kill both the criminals. The investigation headed up by Takeshi Kaneshiro's Xu Baijiu uses a sort of "C.S.I: Yunnan Province" approach to discover the truth -
it becomes clear that Jinxi is a master assassin (although there are some strange red herrings along the way, including the detective stabbing the man he's investigating with a scythe having convinced himself that he can deflect it... whoops, nice try). It transpires that Jinxi is well aware of what he is capable of and after some digging about and some bribery the detective discovers the papermaker is actually Tang Long the missing second in command of the "72 Demons" - a vicious gang responsible for crimes including the massacre of a family and small children ten years before.
Yen is a pretty good actor as well as a highly accomplished martial artist so his transition in our eyes from slightly dopey husband and father
to ruthless killing machine works very well, although it's slightly fumbled in the screenplay; the insistence on the truth being obscure means there's no satisfying reveal, by the time it's made clear we already know. Kaneshiro's has a harder time as the supposedly super smart detective, master of physiology, because the character is essentially an unlikeable jobsworth whose relentless investigation directly leads to a lot of unnecessary death and destruction, not to mention some of his smart ideas turn out to be rubbish. And that's where most of the problem lies - the story is ridiculous, and events in the last third of the film ruin an intriguing set-up. There's a string of events that induced inappropriate laughter in my screening -
Baijiu's plan to fake Jinxi's death with acupuncture needles is as senseless as it is ridiculous, as is Jinxi's bright idea to cut off his own left arm to get out of the clan. The leader of the Demons getting killed by a miraculously timed lightning bolt after getting a needle in the neck (although he can deflect swords) is a stroke of comedy genius as well, definitely not intended. Some of the cinematography and art design is impressive, but there's an overuse of slow motion, and CGI rushing around inside the human body as nerves snap and hearts stop which isn't as impressive as director Peter Chan seems to think it is. Not a good representative of the Wuxia genre, whatever the title is.