Saturday, November 16, 2013

Dragon (starring Donnie Yen)

It's been a while since I watched a new martial arts movie, and I just got done watching Dragon. [FYI: I saw the uncut, 155 minute version. The US version apparently cut over 30 minutes. Grrr!] In Dragon, Donnie Yen plays Liu Jinxi, a quiet paper maker and family man who lives in a small village. He becomes a hero when he inadvertently defeats some thugs who come to the village looking for trouble. An investigator (played by Takeshi Kaneshiro) looks into the case and slowly unravels Jinxi's past, which is much darker than anyone suspects. Don't worry; no spoilers!

The movie raises a couple themes, such as: Can people change? What is the relationship of mercy and justice? Admittedly, Dragon doesn't tie these questions up too well, but I did find myself watching Yen's character for evidence one way or the other of the answer to the first question. That was rewarding. Plus I was able to overlook the lack of full resolution for a lot of reasons, mainly because Dragon has a strong plot as well great martial arts scenes. This is a pretty rare combination in a martial arts movie. Second, I totally bought into Yen and Kaneshiro's characters. Good performances by the males leads made this side of the film a highlight, especially during some creepy scenes where we're not sure what Yen's character is capable of. All this, plus a great look for the film placed Dragon in the above average category pretty much from the start. Noteworthy that Yen directed the action sequences himself, and he did a top notch job.

On the downside, as the movie progressed it unfortunately tried to up the ante on the quiet, character-driven story through the use of over-the-top melodrama and bat shit crazy violence. As Dragon made Liu Jinxi's past darker and darker and a long-lost person from that past nuttier and nuttier, I found the film less and less engaging. I was actually kind of underwhelmed during the final fight scene, not because the skill or filming was off but because I just didn't buy the situation and characters anymore. It's almost as if the writers didn't have enough faith in their story, so they felt they had to introduce extra flashbacks of cruel violence and dysfunction to compensate. For me, it hurt the film.

Part of my objection is that I generally find martial arts movies that get too dark just don't work for me. The best martial arts movies display great skills from the stars which, of course, entails a degree of violence (and even some 'ick factor' too!).  However, the best films also rarely stray too far from the spirit of the martial arts. Dragon starts out really well along these lines, and it does a great job subtly working in some martial arts/Zen philosophy early on. Later, however, we get bloodthirsty psychos, cruelty to children, and a lightning bolt. That stuff just doesn't fit with the spirit of martial arts, and it falls flat. Of course, this is just my taste, but I doubt I'm the only martial arts fanboy who feels this way. Plus, Dragon did not need to go there in order to work.

Bottom-line: I enjoyed this movie very much but my enjoyment definitely dipped in the last third of the movie. I recommend it as a strong martial arts movie, especially for Donnie Yen fans and those who want a solid plot in their martial arts flicks.

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