"There’s more to this than meets the eye". That's what we said about Donnie Yen's Wu Xia back in 2011. U.K. audiences will get the chance to find out for themselves this month but it comes at a price. As well as the obvious name change (part and parcel these days), twenty minutes have been removed from the running time, putting less emphasis on character and more focus on action. Some people will welcome the change, while others will detest the shift in focus. Wu Xia is a whip-smart crime drama with action undertones. Dragon, however, feels faster and looser by comparison. Your level of enjoyment very much depends upon how much Yen you like for your pound.
In addition to choreographing the fight sequences, Donnie stars as a mild mannered paper maker who wouldn’t say boo to a goose. Unless the goose tried to pick a fight of course, then I guess all bets are off. Donnie’s biggest threat comes from Kaneshiro Takeshi, an eccentric detective who doesn’t believe a single word he's telling him. If that’s not enough for you, Peter Chan (The Warlords) also casts Shaw Brothers legends Jimmy Wang Yu (The One-Armed Swordsman) and Kara Hui (My Young Auntie) in pivotal fighting roles. Chan’s latest comes on like an episode of CSI first; Ip Man second. It’s a curious concoction for sure, but in choosing a less than linear path Chan has made a far more interesting movie. A hit with fans and critics alike, not only was Wu Xia the only Chinese-language film to play at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, it’s also the freshest action movie to arrive in years.
Paper maker Liu Jinxi (Donnie Yen) lives in a quiet village with his wife Yu (Tang Wei) and two sons. One day, Liu is caught up in a robbery at the local store and by sheer luck, manages to kill the two criminals committing the crime. Detective Xu Baijiu (Kaneshiro Takeshi) is a little less hasty to draw conclusions, and after thorough analysis of the crime scene comes up with his own elaborate theory. Xu Baijiu believes that Jinxi is a high-ranking member of the 72 Demons Gang. When word of Jinxi's encounter gets out, the gang’s leader (Jimmy Wang Yu) and his wife (Kara Hui) set out to make amends by any means necessary. Jinxi’s past comes back to haunt him in spectacular bone-crunching style and Yen provides his greatest performance to date.
Wu Xia isn't your typical action movie, which makes the change of emphasis for U.K. audiences all the more unnerving. Most of the first act is spent dissecting the initial encounter, with a CSI style investigation that utilises zany CGI effects to explain the finer details of Jinxi’s showdown. If it’s a typical Donnie Yen action extravaganza you’re after, chances are you’re coming away disappointed. Character development takes precedence over bombastic action, with Chan keen to build on the mystery surrounding Jinxi’s past. There's a Looney Tune vibe running through the first encounter but on second viewing you'll appreciate the intricacies more. It's a quirky opening, not quite tongue in cheek but breezy in tone. Donnie proves endearing and Kaneshiro adds another feather to his cap as a determined detective teetering on the edge of madness. The first fight scene is played out from two perspectives and special effects are put to great use, but it’s not until the end of the second act that Donnie finds his dancing feet.
Yen's performance is perhaps the films greatest achievement. Not exactly known for restraint - though Ip Man was an improvement - Donnie provides a surprisingly subtle performance as the (whisper it quietly) slightly ‘simple’ paper maker. Rather annoyingly, he looks younger here than he has in years. I’m starting to think Donnie might not be entirely human. Not only is he living his life in reverse - action stars don’t usually leave it this late to hit the big time - he also resembles a pumped up Peter Pan. With a lot less spandex of course. His relationship with Xu Baijiu is given plenty of room to breathe in the original version of the film, and as a result, Jinxi is his most rounded character. It’s refreshing to watch a martial arts movie that doesn’t build its plot around the action sequences. Wu Xia puts character and drama first, before unleashing the kind of thrills we have come to expect from Donnie Yen.
The plot is nothing new but the delivery feels fresh and exciting; old school blended with new, amplifying the story rather than drowning it out. The action sequences, when they do occur, are as audacious and exciting as you would expect. Donnie's personal favourite - a blistering rooftop chase sequence without wirework - is a blast from start to finish. Yen can do action movies with one arm tied behind his back, which makes the final face off all the more appealing. Paying homage to The One Armed Swordsman in more ways than one, Wu Xia casts the original acting legend as Liu Jinxi's father. It’s great to see Donnie flexing his acting muscles for a change too.
"Wu Xia might look like a typical martial arts movie on paper, but with Chan at the helm it’s so much more than that. As for Yen, Wu Xia isn't as commercial as what we’re used to, but if you’re looking for something that breathes new life into the action genre this will prove hard to beat." Dragon on the other hand wants to be a straight-up action movie, but there's still enough here to prevent it from feeling orthodox. Tang Wei gets short shrift as Liu Jinxi's doting wife, and there's less emphasis put on character development, relationships and depth. Most of the changes are made in the first hour - where Wu Xia excelled in creating rounded story arcs Dragon is eager to cut to the chase - but it's still a good movie, and most of the freshness remains intact.
The unique flavour is evident in both versions but Wu Xia embraces the eccentricity more. As the film progresses Wu Xia retains that edge, with richer characterisation and deeper impact adding to the overall experience, but Dragon - for all its shortcomings - is still a cut above the rest. AW