An unlikely group of heroes must band together to protect the innocent in King Hu’s Dragon Inn. Following the execution of the emperor’s minister of defense, the malicious eunuch Cao banishes the minister of defense’s children to the self-titled “Dragon Inn” where he dispatches his troops to execute them. The only obstacle in their way, however, are a group of fighters – Xiao Shao-zi and the Zhu siblings. Can they defeat Cao and keep the children out of harm’s way or will they fall to the blade of the enemy? “They don’t make ‘em like they used to,” says the boomer. In this case, they happen to be right! Here is Dragon Inn.
When one thinks of Wuxia films, we tend to associate them with the likes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Hero. Dragon Inn isn’t as big as those films have but what it lacks in scale, it makes up for with intricate set pieces and nail-biting tension. Every sequence in this film is an absolute banger! Danger lurks in every corner of the Dragon Inn and Hu masterfully builds that tension to its breaking point. The best moments come in watching how the characters respond to the situations they’re put in and it results in tremendously exciting payoffs while also establishing the competence of the protagonists.
The poisoned wine sequence is the best example of Hu’s use of tension, atmosphere, with a touch of comedy to boot. As our heroes sit and dine with Cao’s soldiers, they intentionally poison the Zhu siblings’ drinks. Sister Zhu, the sharpest of the siblings, catches word of it through Xiao and attempts to get Brother Zhu’s attention without Cao’s men noticing. It’s a witty back-and-forth between the Zhu siblings and Cao’s men as each side coaxes the other to drink the poisoned cup.
While the old-school filmmaking has aged well, the action sequences did come across a little silly. It isn’t a bad thing, especially considering that the film is over 60 years old, but for a modern audience, it does take some getting used to. It’s a Time Capsule to a time before special effects and when practical stunts reigned supreme. It’s easy to see why Dragon Inn is hailed as a classic: it’s the result of a director’s use of atmosphere, space, and tension to craft an action film that’s expertly staged. The dedication of the actors in not only performing their own stunts but also in delivering charismatic performances further aids in the immersion. Dragon Inn is a certified classic that will appeal to action fans and cinephiles alike!
BEST ACTION SEQUENCE: A good payoff is only as good as its setup and the final fight between Cao and the five swordsmen lives up to the hype! Throughout the film, it’s established that Cao is not to be taken lightly. Those who know Cao describe him as one of the fastest and most proficient fighters around which makes him overmatched for just one person. It takes teamwork and strategy to fight Cao, but even when cornered, he still makes it a challenge for our heroes to defeat him. The final fight is also visually stunning and captures the gorgeous vistas of the Chinese mountainside. The location feels just as much a part of the action as the characters and provides a sense of space for the actors to play off of. Even by today’s standards, this sequence works because of how well-established the characters are and just how scary Cao can be in a fight. The sequences track smoothly and never cut abruptly; it’s a synchronized performance of choreography and camerawork.