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Mild-mannered Jinxi (Donnie Yen) is your average Chinese country bumpkin. He’s friendly, loves his wife Ayu (Tang Wei), adores his two kids, and minds his business when he’s not contributing his fair share to his small, close-knit community. Then one day two hoodlums show up in town and promptly tries to rob the local store. Well, they sort of ask for money, but when the owner refuses to pay, they proceed to beat the tar out of him. Jinxi just happened to be in the store that day, and fights back. The two hoodlums end up dead, and before you know it, Jinxi is declared a hero. Enter county cop Baijiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who suspects that the local country bumpkin hero may not be such a local or a country bumpkin at all. In fact, if Baijiu’s suspicious are correct, Jinxi is a notorious killer with some serious skills, and maybe it’s best not to piss him off.
That is the premise of “The Warlords” director Peter Chan’s “Wu Xia” (since re-titled “Dragon” for International consumption), a film that, for its first hour, plays out more as a drama/mystery rather than a martial arts film. In fact, after the store fight, there isn’t another martial arts scene until halfway into the second half. So, yeah, you’ve been warned. Meanwhile, although everyone suspects (including the viewer) that Jinxi had simply beaten the hoodlums by pure dumb luck, Baijiu’s intuition and investigative skills tell another story. We learn very early on that Jinxi, despite his family man exterior, is in fact quite the formidable killer, though why he’s hiding out in a small country town with a pretty wife and two young’uns remain a mystery. A mystery that the persistent Baijiu is determined to solve, and no mystical talk of karma and destiny is going to deter our hard-nosed Detective.
Of course, this wouldn’t be much of a martial arts movie (heck, the title of the film is “Wu Xia”, after all) if all the film had for you was a bunch of scenes of Baijiu seeking to expose Jinxi’s true colors. Once Baijiu gets his answer and Jinxi’s true identity is revealed to all, the second half offers up more action, though anyone expecting an all-out martial arts extravaganza will be very disappointed. There are exactly three fight sequences in the entire movie — the store robbery, a lengthy fight in the town square around the three-quarters mark, and the final battle between Jinxi and his violent past (here rendered in the flesh and played by the very evil Yu Wang) with his future at stake. The film’s fights feature action choreographed by Yen, and while very impressive, their infrequency might bother most Yen fans. Japanese actor Kaneshiro is mostly absent in the asskicking department, though his character’s proficiency with those acupuncture needles sure comes in handy.
What makes “Wu Xia” work is the intense and at times amusing relationship between Yen as the haunted and stoic Jinxi, a man just trying to make the best of a second chance, and Kaneshiro’s dogged cop. Baijiu is a man who believes in the law to the exclusion of everything else, a philosophy that’s served him well, even though it’s cost him pretty much everything. As Baijiu pursues Jinxi, you wish he would just let it go, but then you realize it’s just not in his nature to do so. You could hate him for it, sure, but Kaneshiro is so impossibly charming in the role that you can’t help but be impressed by the guy’s relentlessness. Of course, the fact that there seems to be, literally, a ghost of himself following him around, always crouching in the corner, keeps him on the straight and narrow. This part of the film is a bit creepy, I’ll have to admit, although Chan does manage to milk some chuckles out of it.
Besides another capable performance from Yen and an eccentric turn from Kaneshiro, “Wu Xia” benefits from Tang Wei (“Lust, Caution”) as Jinxi’s long-suffering wife Ayu. As tortured by her past as much as her husband, Ayu spends a lot of the film trying desperately to hold onto what she has, a task that gets progressively harder as more of Jinxi’s past rears their heads — just as she feared. The fact that “Wu Xia” is watchable even when no one’s getting punched in the face really fast (a Yen cinematic trademark in recent years), is thanks to director Peter Chan and the script by Oi Wah Lam. “Wu Xia” is clearly aiming for something more than just “another kung fu movie” out of China. It succeeds … to an extent. There is certainly a feeling of “more” to “Wu Xia”, but honestly, I can’t quite tell you what that more is. If I could break it down into the simplest terms, I would say that Chan is trying to channel a little bit of Johnnie To.
“Wu Xia” has action, but don’t go in expecting something along the lines of the “Ip Man” films. The order of the day here seems to be quality over quantity. It’s a pretty brave move by Yen, to offer his fans something a little bit different, and yet still feel mostly familiar. The film does get a tad ridiculous towards the end, as Jinxi (literally) attempts to separate himself from his past through violent means. Let’s just say I don’t think whoever invented the sword ever intended for it to be used quite that way. The scene comes completely out of nowhere, and I have to admit, if it was supposed to shock me, it worked. I was shocked … for about a second, then I just had to chuckle.
Peter Chan (director) / Oi Wah Lam (screenplay)
CAST: Donnie Yen … Liu Jinxi
Takeshi Kaneshiro … Xu Baijiu
Wei Tang … Ayu
Xiao Ran Li
Yu Wang … The Master