I had prepared myself for a colossal turd, but I have to give credit where it’s due. Dragon Blade is not THAT bad.
One of the most expensive Chinese movies ever made with a budget of US$65 million, Dragon Blade is a sprawling war epic has already made nearly double that at the box office in China alone. It has plenty of CGI, tons of battle sequences — be it one-on-one or massive armies — and the biggest Chinese action star there is, Jackie Chan. What made the headlines, however, was the casting of two Hollywood A-listers, John Cusack and Adrien Brody, as two Roman soldiers. Honestly, it had all the elements of a massive flop.
Despite its questionable motives and its fair share of annoying flaws, Dragon Blade is actually one of the more acceptable Chinese action films I’ve seen in recent years. The more I think about how bad it could have been, the better I think it actually is.
If you want action, the film definitely delivers, with much of its 127-minute running time dedicated to fighting, fighting and more fighting. It’s all nicely choreographed, albeit a little repetitive, going for the more traditional approach as opposed to the modern stylized version popularized by films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Grandmaster or even Hollywood flicks such as 300.
The special effects are generally well done, but not quite on par with Hollywood productions. There are many sweeping shots of the landscape and ancient architecture that look like paintings (probably because they are), and in my opinion they look fake. If the whole movie had that type of feel (a la 300), then it wouldn’t have been as noticeable, though here it’s jarring because it doesn’t match the rest of the film’s grounded presentation.
The film also falls prey to problems that plague other ambitious Chinese films hoping to crack the international market. The plot is simple but they had to make it unnecessary convoluted. You can tell Hong Kong director Daniel Lee was trying to make the narrative more stylish by making things jump around a little when telling the Roman back story, but I think he made it more confusing instead. They also had to find some other non-Chinese Asian actors to appeal to the wider market. In this case they chose Korean-American pop star Yoo Seung-jun, who has a small token role.
The worst mistake, however, had to be the moronic and unnecessary “modern” link they forced into the plot, starting and ending the film in the present with a couple of unconvincing Asian-American archaeologists (Taiwan’s Vanness Wu and Hong Kong’s Karena Lam) looking for something pointless. It’s the typical “let’s throw some popular Asian starlets in there for no reason” idea Chinese movies love so much. Wu and Lam are cringeworthy. Both the acting and the dialogue are laughably bad.
The central characters are relatively well-developed, I suppose, for this type of film. The big signings, Cusack and Brody, really had to earn their paychecks. Cusack plays the good Roman and has to endure a lot of crap, while Brody plays the bad Roman who has use all his Oscar-winning acting to give his stock-standard villain some much-needed depth. Both guys get opportunities to wield swords, and they actually look convincing. Neither guy has been tearing up the box office as of late — Cusack’s in danger of becoming the next Nicholas Cage with some of his choices of late, and most of Brody’s roles in big films these days are of the supporting kind — so I guess they needed the money.
I find it interesting that Cusack’s role was originally said to have been for Mel Gibson. It makes me smile thinking that he would have agreed to play a Roman — you know, the guys who crucified and killed Jesus Christ — and to star alongside the Jewish Brody.
Anyway, as headline-grabbing as the Americans are, Dragon Blade is of course still Jackie Chan’s film. Unfortunately, Huo An is like every other character Chan has ever played. He’s a big hero; he’s courageous, morally upstanding; he never backs down from doing what’s right. And even though he’s now 60 years old, Jackie’s still getting 20-something actresses to play his love interests as though that’s how it’s meant to be. That said, he’s still got the charm. You can tell he’s desperately trying to show off his acting skills — Jackie has said that he really wants to win an Oscar — which is why there’s nearly half a dozen crying scenes for him in this film. Of course, he also does some singing. Because he can.
Pardon my cynicism. Growing up, Jackie Chan was my guy. Everything he did was the shit: Project A, Police Story, Armour of God. I loved it all. I’ve grown up now, but Jackie’s still the same, except a lot slower and no longer capable of the innovative kung fu acrobatics he’s known for. Oh, and now I also think he’s a bit of a Communist Party stooge.
It doesn’t help that Dragon Blade looks and smells a lot like a piece of Communist Party propaganda. Chan plays Huo An, a commander during the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) tasked with keeping peace on the Silk Road when a bunch of rowdy Romans come knocking. And guess what? Last year, Beijing announced its new “belt and road” initiative, comprising the Silk Road Economic Belt, a land-based belt connecting China to Russia to Europe via Central Asia, and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, a maritime route through the Strait of Malacca to India, the Middle East and East Africa. China says the project promotes mutual interests and peace. A coincidence?
What makes it seem even more like propaganda is that the film is filled with unsubtle and unabashed corniness regularly found in Jackie’s movies. It’s a bona fide corn field out there, with an over-the-top musical score and a plethora of “f%*% yeah” moments. I like to call it “Team America-style cheering with Chinese characteristics.” Chinese people want peace! But we will fight to the death for what’s right! We are so righteous even the Romans are willing to follow us!
That’s why no one should be faulted for suspecting that Dragon Blade has a hidden political agenda. It’s a film that demonstrates China can make big blockbusters like Hollywood now, AND they can afford to get top Hollywood actors and even Academy Award winners to join them. China is depicted as a keeper of peace in a volatile world, while the film’s Chinese protagonist is depicted as incorruptible and just. Ethnic minorities are portrayed as uncivilized folk who need the Han Chinese to unify them. I doubt it was an unintentional decision to make Chan’s wife in the movie, played by Mika Wang, an ethnic Uyghur. For those who don’t know, Uyghurs — who say Beijing suppresses their cultural and religious freedoms — are a big problem for China and have been blamed for all the terrorist attacks across the country over the last few years.
The only thing in the film I can think of that really goes against China’s current political philosophies is that Huo infringes Beijing’s principle of non-interference when it comes to the internal matters of other countries — in this case, the Romans. Then again, the Romans were “making trouble” on China’s doorstep, something Chinese president Xi Jinping once said he would not tolerate (though that was in reference to North Korea).
Perhaps I’m over-analyzing. Maybe Dragon Blade is just an innocent action blockbuster after all. Whatever the case may be, it’s not a horrible effort. It is by no means great, or even very good, but at least it’s not boring and it’s not pretentious. The production value is relatively high; Cusack and Brody don’t embarrass themselves like I had anticipated, and the action is solid and occasionally spectacular. As I said, it could have been much much worse.
3.25 stars out of 5