Director: Daniel Lee
Fight Director: Jackie Chan
Starring: Jackie Chan, John Cusack, Adrien Brody
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Synopsis: When corrupt Roman leader Tiberius arrives with a giant army to claim the Silk Road, Huo An teams up his army with an elite Legion of defected Roman soldiers led by General Lucius to protect his country and his new friends.
There is a lot that is charming about Dragon Blade, the epic Hong Kong action-drama from director Daniel Lee, starring Jackie Chan. Keep this in mind, because this movie has lots of marks against it, too.
Theoretically, any “movie lover” should be interested in something that is fun and entertaining. Dragon Blade sports blood, great, subtle fight scenes, and plenty of laughs. But the laughs are unintentional. The dialogue and delivery is just that bad at times. And the acting is seemingly directionless despite the involvement of Chan, John Cusack and Adrien Brody. Obviously with professionals like these, the acting isn’t technically “bad,” it’s just uninspired, and comes off genuinely confused. The whole production is atonal, a clumsy mix of action, drama, comedy, and inspirational hooey.
Dragon Blade is set in 48 BC, on the famed Silk Road, an ancient trade route that united much of Asia. This is a period piece devoid of any committed period details. The costumes look right, but besides the Chinese being spoken, there is a lot more English than one would assume. Though the Han Dynasty is mentioned, nothing about Dragon Blade feels geared towards doing its setting justice. Barry Lyndon this is not.The character names aren’t even necessary. This is better thought of as a time machine film for three aging stars. Jackie Chan is a disgraced Chinese general traveling the desert with a small clan dubbed the Protection Squad. Their purpose is to turn foe into friend. Their creed is put to the test when they run into a renegade Roman army unit led by John Cusack, running from a tyrannical emperor, played by Adrien Brody. Chan and Cusack unite their clans, rebuild a city, and forge a bond that comes in handy when the evil emperor decides to takeover Silk Road and get some yummy revenge. Brody does a spectacularly bad job as the emperor. It’s like he got passed over for Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator and never recovered. Cusack isn’t much better, but somehow he’s much more fun to watch. His performance is something out of the Nic Cage School of acting. This is no disrespect to Cage or to Cusack—it is commendable to be so fun and funny in the face of such a dreadful role. Here, Cusack is to acting as Jonah Hill is to standup comedy–one doesn’t equal the other. But it doesn’t muck up our enjoyment.
Chan is a saving grace. He is such a joy to watch, whether embroiled in a well choreographed fight scene (Chan directed all of the fights), in the middle some difficult stunt (Chan, in his sixties now, still does his own), or lightening the mood with an endless supply of goofy facial expressions. This is Chan’s movie, and as I heard a fellow critic say after the screening, it’s easy to forget how great he is as a performer.
There’s more about Dragon Blade that is subpar. The CGI effects—this a big battle production, a bastard cousin to Braveheart but with a sour twist of 300 appeal—have an unfortunate screen saver quality. This movie has so many extras, such a large-scale feel,that it makes it hard to mesh with the close-ups of its stars and the intimate camerawork of the smaller scale fight sequences.
Remarkably, what doesn’t work in Dragon Blade is (almost) drowned out by what does. There is a childlike energy that makes this a perfect movie for, well, children. Twelve-year-olds should be the target audience for something this sweetly stupid, grand, and violent. It teaches without confronting. Make no mistake Dragon Blade is a violent film, and I’m giddy over it. Eyes get gouged out. Children plunge to their death. It is rated R. So why would I suggest it for kids? Because of the ridiculously cheesy, but smart life lessons being taught with the sweeping simplicity of a middle-school textbook. This is the kind of period piece for someone who thinks Lincoln too talky. The real lessons here are about friendship, racial harmony, teamwork, and violence only as a horrid last resort. Kids will smile, and be engrossed, but will have to hide their face every now and then. Luckily, adults will smile, too, and will only hide their face whenever the “budget” in this big budget venture exposes itself. My adult self had fun, and my inner child had fun, too. Then again, I spent most of my young years watching Scream on loop, and I’m not the buffest history buff.