Directed by Peter Chan in 2011, Dragon (retitled for release in North America by the Weinsteins for some reason, the original title was Wu-Xia) stars Donnie Yen as a man named Liu Jin-xi. He's lived in the same small town for about ten years now, having married a local single mother named Ayu (Tang Wei) and set up shop in town making paper. Together he and his wife are raising two kids and they seem to lead a quiet, idyllic life together. This changes when, seemingly completely by chance, Jin-xi stops a pair of bandits who attempt to rob a store. When he kills them in the ensuing brawl, he's looked upon by the townsfolk as a hero but Detective Xu Baijiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) wonders if what seems to have been nothing more than luck on the part of Jin-xi might actually be an indicator that he's not who he says he is.
Ever suspicious, Baijiu starts to obsess over the incident. He uses the forensics at his disposal to gather as much evidence as he is able to gets his hands on, all while replaying different aspects of the fight over in his head. Despite Baiju's prodding, however, Jin-xi continues to insist that he is nothing more than a simple papermaker, a man who tried to do the right thing by his neighbors and who got lucky in a fight. Baijiu isn't going to let this drop that easily, however, and he insists on uncovering the truth about Jin-xi's past.
While this film might have been marketed as a slam-bang action movie, it's actually more of a thriller mixed with a police procedural. That's not to say that there aren't some great action set pieces here, because there are, but those expecting wall to wall fights might be a bit taken aback by the movie as there are really only three action set pieces here. Donnie Yen handled the fight choreography for the film and so it's not surprising to see that his character is given plenty of opportunity to dish it out in those three set pieces, but the pace here is far more methodical and deliberate than your average martial arts movie. Each one of the three set pieces, however, does something to advance the plot in important ways, so they've been integrated into the storyline rather well here and serve as more than mere adrenaline fodder.
As far as the story itself is concerned, it may owe a bit to other films (it feels like it was influenced by A History Of Violence at times) and it might not win any awards for originality but it is very well told. The plot unfolds at a good pace, offering us some solid character development so that the more dramatic aspects of the picture carry the appropriate amount of weight. The movie also really benefits from some serious polish on the visual front, with some legitimately beautiful cinematography not only showing off the fight scenes but the locations where all of this unfolds as well. The editing is tight and slick, not overusing fast cuts as a lot of modern action films are apt to demonstrate but hitting a quick enough rhythm to draw us in. There are a few scenes where CGI is used that don't always work perfectly and feel out of place against the period detail showcased in the picture, but otherwise, Dragon is a rousing success in terms of technique.
The cast also do very well here. Yen excels as the pensive man whose past he hopes will remain hidden, handling himself as well in the quieter, more dramatic moments in the picture as he does in the action sequences. His work here is every bit as good as his work in the Ip Man movies, his performance is a strong one. Takeshi Kaneshiro is also solid here, playing his part with a fair bit more manic energy, creating an obsessive character full of odd little quirks and character traits. The two leading men make for some interesting contrasts in the movie. The beautiful Tang Wei is fine in her supporting part but isn't given quite as much to do as the two leads, and be on the lookout for some great supporting roles played by the legendary Jimmy Wang Yu and Kara Hui, an obvious nod on the part of director Chan to the wuxia films of the past that were no doubt quite an influence on this picture.
It should be noted that the version of the movie contained on this Blu-ray from Anchor Bay is the ninety-eight minute edited North American cut of the film. The Hong Kong release reportedly runs one hundred and sixteen minutes and the mainland cut one hundred and fifteen. Without either of those versions on hand to compare, it's impossible to say what's been trimmed but the version included on this disc certainly plays well enough judged on its own merits.
Anchor Bay presents Dragon in an AVC encoded 1080p 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen high definition transfer that looks very good. The quality of the image itself is generally remarkably detailed and crisp. Some very, very slight edge enhancement is there but it is all very minor. The film was made with a certain style in mind and so it shouldn't ever be the most colorful looking picture in the first place and this transfer does replicate that sort of toned down, almost hazy look that was obviously intentional on the part of the filmmakers to help create a period atmosphere. There are certain scenes in the movie that use a bleak color scheme, with a lot of grays and browns and blacks and dark blues, so these don't really pop the way some of the more colorful moments in the movie do. Contrast is good and skin tones are rendered fairly well and this definitely offers up more than standard definition can provide. Overall, the image is very good and leaves little room for complaint - fans should be pleased with the excellent detail, texture and color reproduction on display here.
This disc offers up a DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track in Mandarin with optional subtitles offered in English and in Spanish. The film's audio mix sounds great in DTS-HD though it should be noted that there are a couple of spots where the dialogue is a bit lower in the mix than the sound effects are. Aside from that, there are frequent directional effects used throughout the film, and the score is spread out very nicely through both the front and rear channels. The action scenes have a really strong weight to them, in that you'll feel the various kicks and punches on impact - this helps give the movie more ambience and atmosphere and makes it a more involving watch. All in all, this is a strong mix with plenty of interesting activity to help make the movie a more involved experience.
There aren't a ton of extras here but we do get a featurette entitled The Making Of Dragon which is broken up into a few parts - Risk And Rewards, Framing the Action, Choosing Jimmy Wang Yu, A Different Role For Takeshi Kaneshiro, The Ins And Outs Of Acupuncture, Family Dynamics, Tang Wei In The Countryside and Wai Ying Hung On Working With Donnie Yen. With a combined running time of just over twenty-two minutes, there is some interesting stuff included in here starting with a scene where they do some location scouting where Yen's assistant returns from a trip down a ravine covered in blood. There's a lot of emphasis on the stunts and martial arts scenes here but it's also fun to hear about what the different cast and crew members enjoyed about the shot and how they got involved with the production. It's also great to see Wang Yu get some respect here. There is also a featurette called Behind The Scenes With Donnie Yen which in is broken up into three parts - Staging The Action, Influences And Inspiration and On Set, On Location that run a combined five minutes and forty seconds. Here Yen discusses his work not just as an actor in the movie but also as the fight choreographer and what he tried to bring to this movie in both facilities. Rounding out the extras are a music video, menus and chapter stops. Before the menus load a couple of trailers for unrelated Anchor Bay properties play, but there's no trailer for the feature itself included here.
Dragon is an impressive picture, a very solid mix of action and mystery with some excellent performances and strong action set pieces. It looks great, it's well put together and it makes very good use of some beautiful sets and locations making for a picture that succeeds both on a technical level and an artistic one - and on top of that, it's very entertaining as well. Anchor Bay's Blu-ray presents a shorter cut of the movie than what was released in its homeland but the quality of the Blu-ray is strong, even if the extras are slim. Purists might want to get the import just to find out what's been cut, otherwise, consider this recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.