Peter Ho-Sun Chan's "Dragon" begins as many Chinese martial arts films do, with bucolic village scenes that give way to a destructive, stunt-laden fight. In this case, the conflict is between interloping thugs threatening a shopkeeper, and a paper mill craftsman named Jin-xi (Donnie Yen) whose martial artistry saves the day.
What follows, though, is not the typical hero's tale, but a quasi-brooding mix of "Columbo" and "A History of Violence." Sent to investigate the thugs' deaths, rational-minded detective Xu Bai-jiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) concludes that unassuming Jin-xi is actually a notorious gang leader of superior fighting ability who's assumed a new identity.
Though marked by the kind of physics-defying, kitchen sink combat scenes expected of the genre, Chan's movie shows flair in offbeat areas, such as the tense exchanges between the two leads and the enjoyably hyperacute visual deconstruction of a fight we've already seen to show how the skeptical, obsessive Xu Bai-jiu interprets each element of the struggle as more than what it seems.
It all leads to an expected showdown between the awful past and the redeeming present, but "Dragon" has enough interesting left turns in style, mood and psychodrama to make it stand out.
"Dragon." MPAA rating: R for violence; In Mandarin with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes. At Sundance Sunset Cinema, West Hollywood.