"Dragon" is theoretically a wuxia tale, built on a riotous barrage of martial-arts wire work, kinetic energy and busted heads; but it also happens to be blatantly tooled for Western sensibilities in pacing, editing style and magpie borrowings. It finds room for existential ponderings about the human condition and a dash of mysticism, while also sticking in some explanatory animations of blood clots, bruises and broken bones. No wonder The Weinstein Company's corporate antennae have twitched at the commercial possibilities.
The setting is southwest China in 1913, with momentous political changes underway somewhere over the horizon. Mild-mannered family man Liu (Donnie Yen, with combat skills undimmed by the approach of his fifth decade) hides a murky past and some vaguely superheroic abilities from his loving family and caring neighbors. But he runs into passing detective Xu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a man whose round glasses and Panama hat mark him as the Coming Man. Enthused by the scientific method and some newfangled forensic theories, plus a prefight visualization technique borrowed from Sherlock Holmes — or at least from "Sherlock Holmes" — Xu suspects that something is up. Before you can say "A History of Violence," the game is afoot.
The international-friendly approach is a bit relentless; and director Peter Chan's deliberate aversion to the textures and costumes and fabrics that usually mingle with the mayhem leaves a weird thematic hole in the middle of the film. Halfway through, almost as if nudged in the ribs, "Dragon" stops being a fairly lighthearted detective story and turns left into a more mythic arena. Liu battles first his mother on his own turf, and then travels into his father's secret domain to slay a few ghosts, sacrificing a crucial body part in the process, so the second half feels a little like a different movie altogether. But it's no less fun than the first, since both leads stay charismatic wherever the story takes them. One of them even gets to go home to Tang Wei, playing Liu's wife with effortless grace and as always looking like roughly six million yuan.