For the next ten weeks, Blake is going to be introducing me to the world of Martial Arts films, a genre I’ve only really touched upon via the occasionally video game movie (and Karate Kid). She, on the other hand, is a bit of an expert and has picked ten films for me to watch. The catch is, I won’t know what the films are until they are shown. So, to kick things off, we watched Dragon (or Wǔ xiá), starring Donnie Yen.
For these reviews I will keep spoilers to a minimum, just in case you too are a newbie to the genre.
The film is centred around Liu Jinxi (Yen), a mild mannered worker at the villages prosperous paper mill. He lives with his wife and two sons. However, a couple of bandits attempt to rob the shop and Jinxi throws himself at the attackers and through luck manages to not only take them down but kill them both. After a very public autopsy, a detective by the name of Xu Baijiu discovers that one of the men was a very notorious criminal. When he informs the local magistrate, he is pleased and hails Jinxi as a hero but Xu Baijiu is suspicious of how a seemingly humble man could take down two dangerous criminals by accident.
One of the cooler scenes of the film is during Baijiu’s questioning of Jinxi, asking him to retell the story of the fight. We then see the same fight played out as before but this time the action changes to show how deliberate Jinxi’s movements and attacks were, as Baijiu narrates. This is interspersed with Jinxi carrying on as if he got super lucky during the fight but we see through different angles and slowed down moments that Jinxi not only is a skilled martial artist but one who has the power to kill a man with a blow to the head.
Baijiu carries on investigating Jinxi, now sure that he is hiding some big secret about his past. He even gets close to Jinxi’s family in his search for answers. There are twists and there are turns, but you can discover them yourself if you too are getting into Martial Arts films – this was a good introduction for me.
The fights are fun and entertaining, with a decent amount of brutality mixed in with some more light hearted moments. A man gets his ear sliced off by accident in one scene which made me squirm a little. The scene where they deconstruct the opening fight is super cool and every fight – which are fairly spaced out throughout the film – is entertainingly hard hitting.
The story is good, you get to know Jinxi, his family and the detective and it constantly keeps you guessing about certain characters and their true intentions but I feel it all leads to a fairly satisfying conclusion. I feel like Dragon ended up being a great choice for my first real foray into the genre, even though it was picked by random, because it blended in a lot of elements of a martial arts film with that of a detective movie which allowed me to latch on to familiar tropes of the latter genre and get to grips with those of the former. I tend to watch English-speaking movies with subtitles anyway so the language barrier wasn’t that severe for me – it might be a hurdle for some people who don’t like watching movies in different languages but for me it’s one I am happy to jump over.
Overall, I think Dragon is a good film, I liked the action, I liked the acting and I liked the story. It wasn’t hard to get into it either and I was pretty hooked until it was over. I was genuinely invested in the main characters by the end. If you are taking a similar journey to me then I can say I think Dragon is a great place to start.
THIS REVIEW WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS
As you no doubt know from Stu’s review, we sat down and watched Dragon for the first Martial Arts Movie Marathon. I chose ten different martial marts actors, with a range of fighting styles and chose one movie for each (though some do cross over, I chose the film where each actor was the lead character). Our first outing was Dragon, starring Donnie Yen. Anyone who knows the genre might be thinking “hey, why not watch the Ip Man movies?” and while I did consider it, I felt like Dragon was a better option overall due to the fact it’s both funny and serious and knowing Stu was somewhat new to the genre, I felt it was better to give him a softer entry than the depth and world building Ip Man series.
What I love about Dragon is that it’s incredibly rewatchable. The opening fight between Liu Jinxi and the two criminals plays out in a comical way which paints Donnie Yen as a bumbling nobody but when detective Xu Baijiu deconstructs the fight, we get to see it how it really happened and that’s when Yen’s incredible physicality shines through. Re-watching the film again, you can see all the parts of the fight where Jinxi has clearly covered up his ability during the fight and the reactions of the criminals fighting him make a lot more sense. The other cast in this movie, including a frankly terrifying performance from Jimmy Wang Yu, play their parts perfectly and everyone gets their moment whether it’s in a fight or through interesting development and back story.
The poking around by Baijiu reveals that not only is Liu Jinxi not his real name, but he is Tang Long, a well known murderer. This was another huge reason for my choosing of this movie, was the reveal that the main character who is a family man and easily lovable is revealed to be a butcher (including a flashback where he decides to leave that life behind after the death of a child who had witnessed Long murder his father). It is revealed that Tang Long was the second-in-command of a gang known as the 72 Demons, headed by “The Master”, his father (Jimmy Wang Yu) and the final showdown between Yen and Wang Yu is incredible as it shows the speed of Yen vs the raw strength and frightening power of Wang Yu. The other fights, including a great barn fight with The Master’s knife wielding wife and Jinxi and a brilliant but short fight with an assailant, have a stunning amount of choreography and the use of the set around them is done so beautifully.
Dragon boasts a lot of really cool fights, filled with the acrobatics you’d expect from a Donnie Yen film. There’s a fair amount of brutality too, the injuries sustained are not just light bruises after a fight, there’s plenty of blood and violence if you like that in your fighting movie! The final fight is headed by Jinxi removing his own arm as a way to sever bonds to his family, which of course makes his father very angry. The fight between them gets bloody and another great thing about this movie is that it doesn’t end the way you’d expect a martial arts movie to end. The good guy wins, sure, but his victory comes from somewhere ingenious and also kind of funny. The injury detail is fantastic, from severed ears to x-ray shots of nerves severing, with enough coughed up blood and missing teeth to really sell the power of the punches and kicks being thrown.
There’s not a lot more I can say about the film that wasn’t covered in Stu’s review but I think once this marathon is done I’ll sit him down with the Ip Man series so he can really drink up the Donnie Yen goodness.