Yen's strengths have never been in his expressiveness, and Dragon plods when it centers on dramatic struggles, then leaps exhilaratingly to life whenever the fighting begins.
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As a whole, it does not quite work, especially at the end, when Mr. Chan tries for a Shakespearean climax of filial rebellion and paternal rage. But at its less grandiose moments, the combination of expressive acting and kinetic action pays off in ways that are likely to satisfy both novices and adepts in martial-arts fandom.
Peter Ho-Sun Chan and Deonnie Yen Chan are too resourceful to let things remain dull for long.
It's never dull though, and the familiar characters and stock motivations are convincingly put across. And there's always Xu, who's turned to acupuncture to suppress his empathy, as you wait for the inevitable moment when suppressing it won't be enough.
Yen, who also choreographed the fights, is a natural hero, and the large canvas and pseudo-superhero tactics work for a bit, but then the action gets sidetracked in place of myth-building.
Fortunately, there are a good number of Yen-choreographed action scenes to break up the monotony.
Dragon is partly an homage to "One Armed Swordsman," a 1967 kung fu classic whose star, Jimmy Wang Yu, plays the new movie's arch-villain. But there's much Western influence: Jinxi's plight recalls David Cronenberg's "A History of Violence," and Baijiu's cerebral and flashy style of detection - complete with animated glimpses of victims' innards - suggests Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes series. Dragon is also one of several recent Chinese crime movies that borrow from CSI-style TV dramas.
When a mild-mannered peasant unsheathes the powers he has long kept hidden, the results can be spectacular. The same can be said for Peter Chan Ho-sun's Dragon, a martial-arts morality play as lithe as it is forceful.
The roaring popular success of Peter Chan's Wu xia in China - renamed Dragon for export - is no mystery: It's an adept genre exercise with rare primal depths.
Dragon has enough interesting left turns in style, mood and psychodrama to make it stand out.