Perhaps because it’s been trimmed down from 114 to 98 minutes for its American release, Peter Ho-Sun Chan’s Dragon feels disjointed and underdeveloped, but it would be hard to imagine any conceivable version of the film not feeling like a bit of a letdown following its terrific opening sequence. After an unassuming papermaker, Liu Jen-xi (Donnie Yen), slays two bandits who attack a local village store and one of the deceased is revealed to be a wanted killer, a detective, Xu Bai-jiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), comes to investigate the crimes and begins mentally restaging the incident based on witness testimony. Even though we’ve already seen the event, presented with typical wuxia gusto by Yen, who helmed the action sequences, we don’t understand the intricacies of how it came about until Xu Bai-jiu obsessively reimagines the action, explaining the inner workings of such kung-fu moves as a death punch to the temple, while the filmmakers oblige by staging the incident from a variety of different angles, slowing down the action to ponder over tiny details, and even taking us inside the bodies of the victims to show how the blows effect their inner anatomy. It’s a rare chance for a martial-arts filmmaker to deconstruct the actual fight scenes that he or she stages with such frequency, and not only does it fill in the necessary information audiences need to understand the showdown’s implications, it serves as a fascinating commentary on the importance of the subtleties that often get overlooked as these types of sequences go whirling by at nuance-erasing speed.
It also serves as a narrative springboard for the rest of the film as Xu’s investigation gives rise to suspicions about Liu Jen-xi and leads the former to continue his inquiries into Liu’s past. What he finds is a connection to a vicious gang that now comes descending on the village and forces Liu out of his seclusion. While the action from here on out is only intermittently compelling and seems to leave a good deal of subplots and background information unsatisfactorily sketchy, Chan and Yen are too resourceful to let things remain dull for long. Whether it’s the performance of a haunting death ritual, a final shocking act of (literal) severance by Liu, or a few skillfully choreographed fight scenes, the film succeeds as a gallery of memorable moments. If these moments don’t quite cohere into a satisfying whole, they still represent a thrilling collation of cinematic ideas that lift the film, if only sporadically, well above the level of the average high-flying wuxia ass-kicker.