'Invincible Dragon' ('Gaulung batbaai'): Film Review
Martial arts actor Zhang Jin and MMA fighter Anderson Silva topline Hong Kong indie stalwart Fruit Chan's first foray into mainstream genre entertainment.
When news surfaces about films undergoing massive reshoots or heading back to the editing room a second or third time, industry pros and general audiences alike tend to brace for the worst. Sometimes it’s a lot of worry about nothing; other times the hand-wringing is entirely justified. Case in point: Invincible Dragon, the calendar latest by Hong Kong independent titan Fruit Chan (Made in Hong Kong, Dumplings). The pic has been kicking around for at least 18 months on the market circuit, long enough for Chan to produce the minor local hit Still Human and direct the challenging and typically Chan-ish Three Husbands in the interim.
Following a so-below-the-radar release in China that it’s almost a myth, Invincible Dragon is finally hitting Hong Kong screens. Chances of the movie finding an audience at home are thin at best. Though it has an appealing lead in emerging martial-arts movie star Zhang Jin and a curiosity factor in Brazilian UFC champion Anderson Silva, the film is guilty of three cardinal sins: never fully exploiting its sillier side; not being bad enough to be good; and suggesting that an unhealthy dose of postproduction tinkering by contrasting voices was applied. The result is a confounding hot mess with no idea what it wants to be. Commercial prospects look grim.
Invincible Dragon begins with undercover cop Kowloon (Zhang, in some truly unfortunate guyliner) busting up a garden-variety crime ring (led by Chan regular Lam Suet), which ends at some bystanders’ wedding banquet where Kowloon shoots the bad guy’s hand off. It lands on the bridal party. That opening sequence and Lam’s gloriously hammy cameo give one hope that the pic is signaling a willingness to lean into its goofier elements and run with them. Sadly, that's not the case.
Kowloon’s antics get him stationed at a sleepy rural precinct where a mysterious psychopath is murdering female police (given recent events in Hong Kong, a movie that features police as victims of brutality isn’t going to get much favorable attention). Before you can say “girl in a fridge,” Kowloon’s fiancée, Fang-ning (criminally underused Stephy Tang), is killed on a stakeout, Kowloon is shot and then — wait for it — he gets suspended for getting shot.
His spiral into despair is telegraphed by more unfortunate makeup, this time a busted wig, a sad goatee and a Plasticine potbelly, until the murderer moves on to Macau. Did we mention Kowloon has a giant dragon tattoo — an homage to the nine-headed beast that saved him from drowning as a child? He does. But long, needlessly convoluted story (by Chan and co-writer Lam Kee-to) short, Kowloon winds up working on the sly in Macau, to the chagrin of Tso Chi-dak (Kevin Cheng, doing a lot of eye-rolling), and rekindling an athletic rivalry with Macau gym owner Alexander Sinclair (Silva).
Chan has some serious muscle to work with: Zhang (The Grandmaster, Ip Man 3) is an emerging martial arts movie actor in desperate need of a strong vehicle; Chan Yuk-wan as Sinclair’s wife Lady proves she can hold her own on the fight front, and though she may not have the screen polish of Michelle Yeoh, not many do; and Silva makes up in sheer presence what he lacks in thespian prowess, though Dave Bautista’s job is safe.
None of them, however, can do much with an anemic script with zero regard to how linear time works in a movie that reduces everyone’s performance to stiff, giggle-inducing cable-access-level make-believe. Juilliard trained or otherwise, not many could do much with a role as a lethal yogi or dialogue like “You will die, or be killed!"
More than just being a patchwork of producers’ notes with little flow, low-energy action choreography by Stephen Tung and Jack Wong (a train car throwdown between Kowloon and Lady excepted) and confused-looking actors doing their best not to look, well, confused, Invincible Dragon is something of a missed opportunity. In the opening minutes, when Kowloon tells the story of his youthful folly and dragon ride, the cartoonish CGI and bonkers story point the way for something to look forward to, nuts as it may be. Chan’s fatal error is not loading the movie up with more silly dragon antics and embracing its inherent zaniness.
Production companies: Pegasus Motion Pictures, Mandarin Motion Pictures
Cast: Zhang Jin, Anderson Silva, Endy Chow, Kevin Cheng, Annie Liu, Stephy Tang, Chan Yuk-wan, Lam Suet, Hugo Ng
Director: Fruit Chan
Screenwriters: Fruit Chan, Lam Kee-to
Producers: John Chong, Amy Chin, Fruit Chan, Raymond Wong
Director of photography: Cheng Siu-keung
Production designer: James Cheung
Costume designer: Silver Cheung
Music: Day Tai
Editor: Tin Sub-fat
Casting: Cheyenne Peng
Sales: Pegasus Motion Pictures
In Cantonese, English