After making a strong impression in 2015 with scene-stealing turns in Soi Cheang’s SPL2: A Time for Consequences and Wilson Yip’s Ip Man 3, Max Zhang seemed destined to be the next big thing in Chinese-Hong Kong action cinema, and was showered with lead roles in solid mid-range productions. Now, four years later, his career has sadly not gained much traction: the action thriller The Brink was a flop, and so was the drama Dealer/Healer, in which he displayed fine dramatic chops. The Ip Man spin-off Master Z did respectable business and is getting a sequel, but its critical and box-office impact is a mere fraction of that of the Donnie Yen franchise from which it’s derived. His supporting roles in Hollywood sequels Pacific Rim: Uprising and Escape Plan: The Extractors have gone by unnoticed, and now comes Fruit Chan’s The Invincible Dragon, which died a quick death upon its Chinese and Hong Kong release. In an unfortunate one-two punch, it may go towards putting an end both to Zhang’s shot at the big time (for the time being at least), and to Fruit Chan’s commercial ambitions, following the failure of his previous China-ready mainstream venture Kill Time.

Zhang plays Kowloon, a hot-headed police detective on the trail of a serial killer who targets female cops in Hong Kong; one day, his own fiancée and colleague Fong Ning (Stephy Tang) is kidnapped by the killer. Years later, having lost hope of finding Ning, Kowloon is a mere shadow of his former self. The serial killer also seems to be laying dormant, but when a female cop is murdered in Macau using his particular M.O., the grieving cop teams up with his former colleague Chow (Endy Chow) to put an end to the killing and make a last effort to find his fiancée. Their investigation leads them to mysterious gym owner Sinclair (Anderson Silva), whom Kowloon defeated in a boxing match years before, and his girlfriend Lady (Juju Chan).

You can’t accuse Fruit Chan of going the easy commercial route, however. Though he’s operating with familiar, pulpy elements and there’s none of the merciless social commentary of his more resonant past films (like The Midnight After or Dumplings), The Invincible Dragon combines genres that no one has attempted to combine before, and jumps the shark an astonishing number of times. This is an unfathomably weird film. With elements of the crime procedural (a police investigation, jurisdiction disputes between Hong Kong and Macau detectives) and the serial killer thriller, it starts off well within comfortable Hong Kong movie tropes, with the somewhat incongruous comedic interludes, some sitcom-worthy (Annie Liu as a lovestruck doctor and good old Richard Ng as her cantankerous father bickering away), some pitch-dark (Max Zhang shoots Lam Suet’s hand away with a Desert Eagle gun in the middle of a wedding banquet), a typical and amusing Hong Kong tonal shift. But with the hilariously aloof voice-over (the narrator seems bored out of his mind), and the ear-splitting dialogue, it becomes unclear what Fruit Chan is trying to achieve, and whether he’s taking things seriously or having a laugh at the expense of his producers – or both. We include here a sample of the dialogue, intoned by Max Zhang and Anderson Silva in something resembling English, in a police station:

– We’re very much alike.
– I’m nothing like you. You’re a nightmare, a psychopath.
– It depends on your point of view. I have given so much to society.
– Yes, you have given it hell and sins.
– It’s fun! You’re in hell with me now, the way you’re screaming and kicking.
– So… Where is hell exactly?
– Hell is where you die.

Indeed, it is when MMA champion Silva arrives in the picture, as a Brazilian-American Iraq-veteran turned Macau gym owner, that The Invincible Dragon truly goes off the rails – at one point literally, with a fight scene set in a derailed train. Fruit Chan adds dimestore mysticism (sometimes involving tattoos, some of which are bulletproof) to his brew of genres, there’s a Rocky-like training montage as Kowloon tries to get rid of his depression-induced pot-belly, and finally the whole affair tips into the realm of fairy tales as, we kid you not (and it’s not so much a spoiler, as it features in the film’s trailers), a nine-headed dragon makes its appearance. It beggars belief, and earns a kind of begrudging respect as one has to admire how wholeheartedly Fruit Chan has thrown away the thriller rule book.

If only it worked. It’s a fascinating disaster, further brought down by the dire miscasting of Anderson Silva, who couldn’t act his way out a paper bag (without even possessing the raw menace of Mike Tyson in his film outings), can barely speak English, and – even more cripplingly – appears limp in his two brawls with Max Zhang, despite being a fearsome fighter in real life. Zhang himself plays his character’s highs and lows ridiculous broad, though his low-key charisma is still effective. A sleepy Kevin Cheng seems on loan from the Z Storm franchise, and only Juju Chan makes an impression as the fierce and mysterious Lady, and her fight against Zhang in a derailed train is the easy pick of the film’s otherwise fussy and over-edited action scenes, from the usually inspired Tung Wai and Jack Wong. Day Tai’s excellent score makes a much better job of mixing genres than the film itself, seemlessly merging triumphant swagger, growling weirdness and aching nostalgia.

Long Story Short: A refreshingly bold, unfathomably weird, unmitigated disaster. *

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  1. This film could be my 2019 worst film of the year

    • It would be a well-deserved crown, but to me, the boldness makes it so bad it’s good. So it is to linger in a limbo outside all rankings.


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