Dragon (Wu Xia)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/21/12 03:54:55

"A nifty martial arts mystery."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2012 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Though Harvey Weinstein has saddled this movie with a generic name for when he finally gets around to releasing it in the USA (the man can't help himself), the original Chinese name of "Wu Xia" is even more basic - it's the name of the "martial hero" genre as a whole. And while this is certainly not the last word on martial arts movies, it's a nifty and memorable one.

The time is 1917; the place is a small village outside Yunnan, China. Liu Jinxi (Donnie Yen), a humble family man who works at the paper mill, is making a stop at the general store when two bandits come in to rob the place. He hides, but when the criminals start to lay into him, he is able to defend himself well enough to be the last man standing while his attackers lay dead. It looks like he got very lucky indeed, but Xu Baijiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), the city detective investigating the incident, finds that one of the bandits was on the nation's most-wanted list, but the blow that killed him is far too incredibly precise to be lucky. Is Jinxi more than just the devoted husband of Ayu (Wang Tei), and what interest does the leader of the 72 Demons gang (Jimmy Wang Yu) have in this?

Lots of action and adventure movies lend themselves to being described as mysteries to be solved, but Wu Xia is the rare example that genuinely feels like a detective story. It's a modern one, with special effects to illustrate the nature of the killing blow straight out of CSI or House, but the movie runs on a detective trying to put together what happened and a suspect who is having his secrets slowly revealed. It's an interesting and frequently engrossing change of tone for a type of movie that by design emphasizes the big action scene rather than the things which come between them. It's not a complicated mystery at all, but the process is very watchable.

The mystery aspect actually seems to inspire Donnie Yen in his roles of "action designer" and "action director", as well. The general-store fight is pretty great in its own right, but watch what happens when Xu goes to the crime scene and director Peter Chan Ho-sun starts showing different angles and slowing it down as the detective tries to reconstruct events; that extra detail is able to serve as a primer on how great fight choreography and action direction makes a movie so much more exciting even when they are going almost completely unnoticed by the conscious mind. It's an invitation to look at the action set-pieces that follow closely, and they still hold up very well, especially the ones where Yen faces off with former dancer Li Xiao-ran and Shaw Brothers legend Jimmy Wang Yu.

Despite not having appeared on-screen for nearly a decade, Wang is still a compelling presence, especially in a tense dinner scene he shares with Donnie Yen and Tang Wei. Yen has always been a cut above many martial arts stars when it comes to the scenes between fights, and he's pretty great here, too, compelling as a would-be everyman who is all the more believable because actively hiding his true self doesn't seem to come very naturally. Takeshi Kaneshiro does a similarly good job as the cop trying to ferret those secrets out; he and Yen are a nice, wary combination. Though we're told how and why he's a tortured soul in the narration, it would be clear (but not forced) enough even if the voiceovers were cut out. And while she's a bit underused as the deceived wife, it's certainly nice to see Tang Wei re-appearing in a major Chinese motion picture after being practically blackballed for doing Lust, Caution.

Director Peter Chan (working from Lam Oi-wah's script) gets the most out of his cast and crew. The period look is nice without being ostentatious, and building a bridge between a very good detective story and a very good martial arts movie is no mean feat; even the previous year's Detective Dee sometimes played as more a case of someone using superhuman powers than human intellect and empathy to solve a case. It's not clear how much of the score with three creditied musicians is original and how much was redone for North America (again, Harvey Weinstein just can't help himself).

As a sort of hybrid film, "Wu Xia" occasionally comes out in between - martial arts fans might want one more really good fight and mystery-lovers might find it a bit simple - but it's pretty good for what it is: A martial arts action film starring one of the best in the business that doesn't dismiss the benefits of good acting and storytelling.

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