DRAGON BLADE (2015)
(Written and Directed by Daniel Lee)
(Starring Jackie Chan, John Cusack (as a Roman Soldier) and Adrien Brody)
Plot: Huo An (Jackie Chan) is the Captain of the Silk Road Protection Squad, using non-violent methods to ensure peace along the trade route. Unfortunately, the squad is framed for gold smuggling and tasked with building a city in an unreasonably short amount of time- with execution looming over their heads if they fail. An exiled Roman Legion, lead by General Luscious (‘John Cusack as a Roman Soldier’), comes across them and despite initially hostilities, they unite to complete the city- and defend it from a corrupt Roman consul (Adrien Brody). Also known as “Tian jiang xiong shi“.
When I heard that Jackie Chan and John Cusack were co-starring in a movie together, my immediate response was “Huh?“. When I subsequently discovered that their odd collaboration would be in a Roman Legion epic, my immediate response was “HUH!?!“. When I learned that Adrien Brody would appear as their antagonist, my immediate response was “…“, because my head had exploded at that point, which left me unable to properly convey my feelings. I like all of these pieces, but none seemed designed to fit in the same puzzle. Personally, I like to imagine that whoever was in charge of casting had heard how Cusack was famous for his ROMANtic comedies and got the genres mixed up *rim shot*. But as much as I laugh (and make no mistake: I am laughing), even I could not help but feel a sense of awe at the ambition and money being inserted into this project. I haven’t heard so much hype surrounding a Hong Kong blockbuster since “Red Cliff“, so maybe I was wrong and the casting choices would reignite interest in International martial arts movies- the only trend I miss from the 1990’s. But then I realized that Daniel Lee was the director and it’s a good thing that my head had already exploded, or else I would’ve…hung it in sadness, because he is the master of mediocrity. Everything he has done is OK, but for a production this massive…or this batshit insane…, wouldn’t you want a more acclaimed filmmaker? Someone whose works don’t share identical strengths and weaknesses?
Even before sticking it in my DVD player (giggity), I felt like I could’ve already written my review because Daniel Lee is so predictable. Now that I have seen “Dragon Blade“, I feel like I could’ve already written my review because Daniel Lee is so predictable! Lee, Jackie Chan and ‘John Cusack as a Roman Soldier’ delivered exactly what I expected them to give me, which is a somewhat strange, reasonably entertaining, sometimes impressive and incredibly flawed epic that could’ve been so much more if Daniel Lee didn’t direct it…but probably would’ve been worse if Daniel Lee didn’t direct it. “Dragon Blade” boasts incredible production values and I still think it’s rather bizarre that the most visually striking segment of the movie is when everyone is working to build the city. The sets on display are elaborate and huge, while the camera captures nearly every detail using sweeping wide and medium shots. There were a lot of extras in wild and colorful costumes, so from a filmmaking perspective, I was impressed by how so much was able to fit in a single frame. What makes me laugh is that while impressive for the spectacle, the construction segment also embodies everything wrong with this narrative, which I’ll explore a little later. But “Dragon Blade” does have exceptional cinematography and the culture clashes- such as the different costumes, weapons, structures- provided lots of eye popping visuals. I give Lee a lot of crap for his perfection of mediocrity, but I’ve always loved how he blends the aesthetics from different cultures together in his works- and “Dragon Blade” has a story that actually justifies his stylistic fetish. I never felt disoriented by the camerawork or editing during the action sequences and if anything, they enhanced the choreography. I was curious how they were going to balance the vastly different combat styles, but for the most part the choreography is very Chinese (and good), albeit with a somewhat unique Roman flavor. The fight scenes were smooth and well paced, although the use of stunt doubles is obvious- especially when it comes to Brody and ‘Cusack as a Roman’. I was pleasantly surprised by how well Jackie carried himself in the fights, as he’s supposed to be retired from the martial arts genre (his body is close to exploding from all of the damage it has taken over the years), yet he still moved so quickly and efficiently. Maybe the filmmakers covered up his physical limitations using smoke and mirrors editing techniques, but I couldn’t tell, so either Jackie still ‘has it’ or the editor masterfully tricked me into thinking Jackie still ‘has it’. While there are quite a few traditional one-on-one bouts, “Dragon Blade” prefers larger scale battles and these scenes are grisly and exciting. But these are all praises that I’d give to most of Daniel Lee’s movies, because he is a competent- perhaps even above average- action director. He’s just not a very good storyteller. Actually, he’s a very bad storyteller.
Around the 45 minute point, I began to realize that there was no established plot. There are a lot of little storythreads, such as Huo An (Jackie Chan) getting framed, encountering intense hostility when he arrives at the city-in-construction and a terse confrontation with the Romans, but they are all dropped after their established scenes and most of these points aren’t even given closure. We learn so much useless information, such as Huo An’s relationship with an off-screen General who saved him, his socially frowned upon marriage, his accidental killing of his sister and none of these subplots ever go anywhere. They would’ve had meaning and even added depth to the story if the narrative was built around the city, which embodies the the protagonists desire to live in a world of tolerance and peace. However, once the overarching plot FINALLY gets going, the focus is on Adrien Brody’s character trying to get control of the Silk Road. The city itself NEEDED to be in direct peril, but the closest we get is a ‘Turn him over or we will destroy you‘ stand-off. Even if the bad guy succeeds in his plan, there is no indication that their cherished accomplishment will be destroyed or that anything would change- as the Chinese Government technically owns the city anyway and they aren’t portrayed any better than the Romans. Because of this, the city- the heart of this story- doesn’t feel relevant, making any attempts to flesh out the characters’ motivations surrounding this location feel like filler. The relationship between the protagonists (Chan and ‘Cusack as a Roman’) is mostly limited to a single scene and when you think about it, ‘John Cusack as a Roman Soldier’ contributes very little to the overarching storyline himself. But at least the Roman Legion has a relevant back-story that ties into the plot…even if it’s a little convoluted and sometimes even hard to follow. It’s not that I think the script was confusing, but too much information is glanced over or dumped on us in the worst possible moments, so little of it resonates. When someone betrays our heroes, I was like “who is that again?“. The character is so insignificant that I can’t even remember who he was! I was taken aback when the Parthians arrive, because I had forgotten that they apparently were still important. A large chunk of screen-time is also dedicated to an attempted rescue of Huo Ans’ wife (Mika Wang), which doesn’t serve the narrative at all- outside of keeping Huo An busy, so that the villains can successfully move in against the other protagonists. The script is just a mess, filled with poorly realized ideas that don’t flow well together. Random Note: Why was this called “Dragon Blade“? No attention is given to any particular weapon and none are named after any dragons, so I think this title was only devised because it sounds kind of cool.
In Daniel Lee’s defense, while “Dragon Blade” shares his usual propensity to cram in so much story that the final result almost feels like it has no story at all, this movie does feel like it had its arms cut off in the editing room. The narrative constantly seems to be jumping around without warning, such as when Huo An suddenly has control over the city. Maybe there was a scene when the previously hostile warden surrendered his position, but if so, it would’ve been so quick and abrubt that I missed it. When Huo and ‘John Cusack as a Roman Soldier’ join forces to take down the antagonist, the next scene is of Huo An trying to rescue his wife- who we didn’t even know was in any kind of peril. There wasn’t any planning or indication that he was going to do that, so it’s jarring how sudden the transition is. Long passages of time apparently occur without warning and scenes are often edited in a way that would constantly make me wonder when a certain event happened. I found out later that the U.S version was apparently shortened by about 20 minutes, including the removal of a wraparound story that takes place in 2015, which might’ve filled in these gaps. Strangely, I thought individual scenes went on for too long, so why couldn’t the editor trim those down instead? Or maybe use transitions that aren’t ugly, hard fade-outs? Of course, even if the original cut of “Dragon Blade” was more coherent, I can’t imagine that the tone would be any more consistent. Jackie’s comical antics are appreciated, but they don’t fit in such a bleak story…although the bleak story does not fit in the mawkishly uplifting ‘unity’ message either. There is a lot of cheese to be found in this movie, such as when the Romans sing their national anthem in Latin, even though they speak English. I also think that there needed to be more (on-screen) racism, for the theme to really hit home. Even though the Chinese and Romans had a segment where they compete with each-other and exchange ideas, it’s all very friendly, humorous and inspiring. Even the villains never give any indication that they are racist, so the ‘pro-tolerance’ message isn’t convincing because everything is too squeaky clean. The Romans and Chinese (with the exception of Huo An) should’ve looked down upon each-other until they learned to respect one another over time. As it is, “Dragon Blade” played it too safe…in a film where children are poisoned…weird…The tone is incredibly erratic, although this does make some of the darker surprises a lot more shocking.
Jackie Chan’s (Huo An) presence alone probably ensured that I wouldn’t give “Dragon Blade” a completely negative review, as he’s just so damn likable and charming. He sold me on the drama when the script was failing to do so and yet he balances his performance with an amusing sense of humor (even if it did disrupt the tone). ‘John Cusack as a Roman Soldier (Lucious)’ has gotten some praise, but I suspect it’s out of pity because ‘Cusack as a Roman Soldier’ acts as if he knows how out-of-place he is. His delivery of dialogue sounded incredibly wooden and he just doesn’t look happy to be there at all. You can practically see him pondering about the fate of his career in every scene. I also struggled with accepting him as a seasoned warrior, as he lacks any kind of physical presence. To be fair, the dialogue wasn’t doing him any favors, but I still think he was miscast. Adrien Brody (Tiberius) gives a surreal performance, as he’s hamming it up to unreal proportions while never raising his voice above a whisper. At first, I thought he was just bored, but I eventually warmed up to his strange acting style and he became one of my favorite parts of the movie! Furthermore, unlike ‘John Cusack as a Roman Soldier’, I actually was able to buy him as a bad-ass. I also appreciated how he was humanized by the end of the movie, even if it wasn’t properly foreshadowed and like everything else, was underdeveloped. The rest of the acting is fine, but no one else gets the opportunity to stand out, probably because we’re busy being distracted by the stranger casting decisions…Although if I were an asshole, I’d have to criticize child actor Jozef Waite (Publius) for his embarrassing attempts to emote , but…I am an asshole, so I already have. He might not entirely be at fault though, as it’s possible that language barriers got in the way of his ability to take direction. I’m not sure if Daniel Lee speaks English, but the Chinese cast delivered steadier performances than their foreign counterparts.
“Dragon Blade” satisfies when it comes to the action, as there are a lot of different forms of combat lurking behind every corner. The quality of the choreography might not stand out as amazing, but it’s still good stuff and Jackie Chan is still a credible kung fu master. For all barbs I’ve sent Daniel Lee’s way, he is a very imaginative director and armed with a strong cinematographer, he can make yummy eye candy. Admittedly, I’d argue that Lee’s problem is his inability to filter his imagination, as ALL of his movies are over-written. In fact, maybe he should’ve let someone else develop his screen-play, as it’s a mess. The plot is constantly jumping around and revealing information in an incredibly uninteresting way, although this might have to do with the post production tampering. But even if the deleted scenes would fill in the gaps and make everything flow more smoothly, the script is using a faulty structure. The first half of the movie feels like padding, even though it is technically the heart of the story. But the second half doesn’t use the momentum that was built up in the first, so the entire narrative just feels unfocused and cluttered. Yet there is enough good stuff to make “Dragon Blade” worth watching if you like Jackie Chan, kung fu epics, etc- as long as you keep your expectations mild. Plus, where else will you be able to see ‘John Cusack as a Roman Soldier’? That image will have a permanent home within my memory, even if “Dragon Blade” itself only stays for the weekend.
Violence: Rated R- It is pretty violent for a Jackie Chan movie. Some moments stand out as particularly gruesome, such as eye gouging.
Nudity: One lady drops her clothing and you briefly see part of her back-side.
Overall: “Dragon Blade” is entertaining enough, but too sloppy and corny to stand out as anything special…although ‘John Cusack as a Roman Soldier’ is pretty special in its own way