Dragon Blade: Reign of Dour, by David Bax
Daniel Lee’s Dragon Blade is like one of those big-budget 1950s American costume/war dramas where, say, John Wayne plays Genghis Khan and everybody speaks English regardless of the setting. In this case, though, the action takes place in China and everybody speaks Chinese except, of course, for the ancient Romans, who speak English. As written and directed by Lee, the film occasionally finds grace, especially in its earlier, quieter moments but eventually succumbs to the dull, overblown trappings of the epic tradition to which it insists on trying to belong.
Jackie Chan plays Huo An, the leader of a military outfit assigned to keep the peace on the Silk Road in 48 BC. Falsely accused of corruption, Huo An’s entire squadron is relocated and tasked with rebuilding a ruined fortress called Goose Gate. Shortly thereafter, a rogue legion of Roman soldiers led by a general named Lucius (John Cusack) approaches the fortress looking for shelter and supplies. After an obligatory skirmish, a truce is called and the Romans enter Goose Gate and are provided for. In return, they aid in the reconstruction. It’s then that we learn Lucius’ reason for fleeing the empire. He has in his protection a boy whose brother, Tiberius (Adrien Brody), intends to kill him in order to solidify his own political power. Now, Tiberius and his army of tens of thousands are coming to complete the job.
Dragon Blade is expensive-looking but tacky, indicating that Lee’s budget outpaced his talent. The jerky and sometimes inexplicable shifts into slow motion during battle sequences look like they could have been created in a consumer grade home video editing software. Lee fares better when he is more humble. The framing and cutting of the scenes between Huo An’s and Lucius’ men behind the walls of Goose Gate focus more on function than form and the movie benefits from it, however briefly.
In the second act, Dragon Blade finds room to be about something more than its plot, instead presenting a series of vignettes that are variations on a theme. The two groups of soldiers are initially distrustful of one another. Eventually, they begin to bond by demonstrating their military drills against each other in the fortress’ main yard. Lee cleverly stages this impromptu competition as a proto-You Got Served dance-off. Later, they repeat the same basic set-up in a lovely bit with each side singing the songs of their homeland. Finally, Huo An and Lucius find themselves atop a fortress wall at dusk where they sit and compare weaponry, swap stories and form a friendship based on mutual admiration that becomes the spine of the film from that point forward. Even as things get increasingly convoluted and boring, the strength of this affection persists.
Chan and Cusack, like the film itself, are only good in these scenes. Otherwise, they are too glum, treating the material with a dour solemnity it does not warrant. Only Brody appears to understand the nature of the movie in which he’s appearing. Wide-eyed and snarling, he sinks his teeth into every inch of scenery he can find.
Still, it would be misleading (if gracious) to focus only on Dragon Blade’s handful of redeeming aspects. In total, it’s a ridiculous drag of a movie. Its second half becomes overly complex, with additional characters like the governors of Goose Gate or the traitorous Chinese soldier adding little more than extra runtime. And the least said about Huo An’s complicated marital status, the better. It’s impossible to say whether the longer, Chinese cut of the film resolves or aggravates these problems. Even when Lee’s heart is in the right place, his po-faced approach to the material makes it all play like parody. The climactic battle in which the various races (Huns, Uighurs, etc.) all show up one by one recalls nothing so much as the warring news teams brawling in Anchorman. By the end, any distinct element Lee has located in his story has become a lone voice in a crowd of shouting idiots.