Stories of redemption and reconciliation with the past are fairly commonplace, but as anti-heroes have become more prevalent in popular culture, the notion of salvation and atonement seems to have become as gray an area as those characters' moral centers. And while that muddled sense of virtue has made for some astonishingly well-written tales as of late, that certainly doesn't mean there isn't room for stories that register morality in a more clear-cut, black-and-white fashion.
'Dragon,' from director Peter Ho-Sun Chan, and starring martial arts master Donnie Yen of 'Ip Man' fame, has its roots firmly set in the latter camp with its tale of a man on the run from his past, being hunted not only by the villainous forces he once served, but also by a relentless lawman played by Takeshi Kaneshiro ('Chungking Express,' 'Red Cliff').
Liu Jin-xi lives a quiet existence as a village craftsman with his wife and two children (one of whom is from his wife's previous marriage) when their placid way of life is shattered after two thugs wander into town looking to stir up trouble. Although it seems as if Liu combats and bests the two men completely by accident, the detective assigned to the case Xu Bai-ju (Kaneshiro) isn't convinced their deaths were the result of good fortune or dumb luck, and proceeds to stick around the village, investigating the so-called hapless hero and his family, working to slowly uncover the bloody history that Liu so desperately was trying to leave behind.
As Xu's investigation begins, he takes a closer look at the initial scuffle between Liu and the thugs and through some inventive cinematography and use of special effects, manages to recreate the struggle in a more truthful manner, revealing Liu to be the competent master fighting against two frightening, but bungling criminals. It manages to be one of the many well choreographed fight sequences the film has to offer, and it is heightened by the fact that the scene was told in two distinctly different ways to elicit a singular response from the viewer.
Unfortunately, as Xu digs deeper into Liu's past and uncovers more lies, half-truths and, eventually the reality of the situation, 'Dragon' begins to be dragged down by a series of familiar plot developments that pit Liu against progressively more dangerous foes, while hinting at Xu's inability to weigh humanity and kindness against the unbending definition of the law.
The relationship between Xu and Liu is interesting from an ideological standpoint, but it is never examined beyond the characters' initial interaction and roles as do-gooder and dogged sinner looking for redemption. Furthermore, as the film builds toward its climax, nearly all of the violent developments are put in motion because of Xu's relentless pursuit to uphold the law; in that sense, he is by far the more interesting character. And while the film inserts a brief scene providing justification for Xu's rigidity, and another to explain just how said inflexibility has led to an emptiness in his life, the film could have used more examination of his character's shortcomings as they pertain to his story arc and Liu's quest for atonement.
Xu Bai-jiu and, in the classic martial arts sense, Liu Jin-xi are the two most well defined characters 'Dragon' has to offer. If the film were centered completely on those two, the fact that nearly everyone else is underwritten and they exist primarily to progress certain scenes or move the plot ahead, wouldn't matter as much. But the third act relies on the introduction of several other characters – some of which contribute a great deal to the narrative's outcome. This, in turn, leads to some inconsistent characterization that builds to a denouement, which ventures dangerously close to becoming ludicrous.
The criticisms being handed down may seem harsh, but 'Dragon' really is an enjoyable film. It's only because it comes so close delivering on its lofty intent that the story's inadequacies seem to somehow be magnified when one talks about them as a whole.
Ultimately, this isn't your average martial arts film; it is a little more thought provoking and contemplative than most. There are an abundance of themes ready to be examined here, and although the film doesn't quite give them all their proper due, it deserves ample credit for drawing any attention to them at all. When that aspect is added to the fact that there are three thrilling fight sequences – one involving a knife-wielding woman, a rooftop chase and a barn full of agitated livestock – that display Donnie Yen's extraordinary talent and charisma as a leading man, it's hard not to appreciate 'Dragon' for what it manages to accomplish, rather than its shortcomings.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Dragon' comes as a single disc from Anchor Bay in the standard keepcase. The film cycles through a series of previews before the top menu, but the viewer has the option to skip over them.
'Dragon' comes with a 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer that is at times very bright and detailed, while during certain segments of the film, very dark, murky and lacking detail of any kind. The inconsistency of the transfer is mostly during low light scenes in which the image is encased in a heavy grain, and there is a considerable amount of crush present in the shadows instead of solid, inky blackness. There are a few scenes where the difference in quality is rather drastic, and slightly diminishes the overall effect of the film by taking the viewers attention away from the action onscreen (not that you'd be able to see most of it anyway).
Still, the majority of the film borders on superb. The lush landscape and environments of Liu's village are gorgeously detailed and filled with an array of bright, vivid colors, lending a sense of realism to the proceedings. In these moments, contrast levels are very high, blacks tend to be well balanced and fine detail on facial features, clothing textures and elements in the background all look great.
Most notably, however, are the wonderfully choreographed fight sequences, which are captured beautifully on this disc. In addition to the fantastic cinematography of co-DPs Jake Pollock and Lai Yiu Fai, the transfer keeps everything in the scenes crystal clear and with the highest level of detail possible, so that not a single punch, kick or throw is missed.
This transfer may be uneven at times, but thankfully, it manages to showcase the elements of 'Dragon' viewers are most likely to be interested in.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is very robust, with a strong emphasis on environmental and ambient background elements to provide an immersive sound experience. Fidelity is generally quite high, and although some of the more bombastic sound effects have a tendency to feel weaker on occasion, there is a hearty emphasis on LFE in other moments that nearly makes up for such shortcomings.
But it's really the surround that shines through on this disc. Whether it's adding an extra dimension to Liu walking through the forest, or the clatter of clay tiles as they shatter under the feet of two combatants locked in a life-and-death struggle, the mix on 'Dragon' does an exemplary job in making sure everything is heard clearly and correctly. Moreover, the dialogue never has to battle the abundant sound effects for the listener's ear. Balance is quite good and consistent throughout, even when the score rises to a crescendo over the characters' dialogue.
As mentioned above, there are times when the action elements feel as though they could have used some extra oomph, but all in all, the audio on 'Dragon' is quite good.
'Dragon' is a martial arts film with a strong center that is clearly interested in exploring the notion of violence as a tool for justice or for corruption. While the film doesn't quite manage to get its argument through as clearly as it would have liked, it does manage to offer more than your average martial arts film. The fight sequences are exciting and deliver maximum impact, even though they take up only a small portion of the film. Although the disc's image isn't perfect, it does manage to provide a quality picture for the film's most important moments with very good sound augmenting the entire experience. If you're a fan of martial arts films and Donnie Yen, then 'Dragon' is for you. Recommended.