Dragon Blade never reaches the heights it should, but is worth watching once, especially on a big screen
“His crime! Is that he took the place in your hearts that belonged to me!”
Chan has a mixed relationship with historical epics. He can do well, with Little Big Soldier or Shaolin, and he can also bomb with his self-directed 1911, but how does this picture – where Chinese warriors meet Roman legions hold up?
A Mainland-Hong Kong collaboration, Dragon Blade is about set in 48BC and is about the Silk Road Protection Squad, a government team committed to protecting the peace in Western China. Captain Huo An (Jackie Chan) is dedicated to this tactic, and helps prevent battles between neighbouring countries. When the government discovers someone within the group is corrupt, they banish the team to reconstruction of the destroyed fortress Wild Geese Gate.
Shortly after, a legion of Romans led by Lucius (John Cusack) arrives in need of water and shelter, carrying with them a blind young boy, Publius (Jozef Waite). Lucius and Huo An fight, before putting aside their differences. With the help of the Romans, the reconstruction of the city goes quickly, but it isn’t long before the peace is disturbed by the arrival of Tiberius (Adrien Brody), a corrupt consul who has history with Lucius and Publius. With the city under threat, Huo An decides to team up with as many countries as possible to defend Wild Geese Gate.
To jump right in, the weakest part of Dragon Blade (aside from the title that is instantly reminiscent of crappy old wuxia films), is its plot. It’s pretty standard stuff, there’s nothing you haven’t seen before, and even then it doesn’t even do it all that well. Pacing is all over the place and it never seems to know if it wants to be funny or grim. A mix can work, but sometimes it’s a bit jarring, with some silly stunts cutting straight to a brutal death scene. It’s not the worst tonal shift I’ve seen in a film, but it doesn’t do the film any favours.
The characters are not particularly expanded upon, with only a base description of who they are serving as the main motivation for the actors. Not to say the actors don’t do a good job though. Jackie Chan is ever-likeable as the man whose main intention is to prevent as much fighting as possible (and sports a sweet goatee and eyeliner combo which somehow works for him). John Cusack has a harder job giving depth to his character, but manages to make it work. His gruff voice is a bit dumb, but easy to get used to, and his relationship to Huo An is actually quite convincing. The two of them have excellent chemistry together and watching them talk or spar or work together are some of the better scenes in the film.
Adrien Brody turns in not quite the most subtle of performances, and that’s putting it lightly. He chews scenery and spits it back out as Tiberius, but at least seems to be having a lot of fun in the process. He growls and yells and gives intense stares, and altogether gives a performance that’s out there and unintentionally hilarious. The rest of the cast is also present in the movie, which is what is required of them, I suppose. Nothing really stands out, but no one is eye-rollingly bad. On that note, everyone speaks the language of their country (and Chan speaks every language ever), but the Romans never speak Latin, except when they sing. It’s a weird moment because it seems to emphasise that they’re speaking English, not translated Latin.
Dragon Blade had the chance to be quite a great film, but it suffers in too many places. The editing is beyond choppy, and we’re treated to new scenes starting while others haven’t finished – sometimes resulting in seeing Jackie Chan in two places at once and wondering if we’re witnessing flashforwards or something – and also weird flashbacks to moments that happened only seconds before. It makes certain parts, especially the beginning, a bit confusing. Throw that in with some characters that are barely expanded upon – there’s this pretty badass warrior woman called Cold Moon (Lin Peng) who has two minutes of screentime scattered throughout who could have been a really fun presence – and you have some pretty flawed building blocks.
But where the movie falters in writing, it more than makes up for in visuals. Dragon Blade’s biggest strength is in director Daniel Lee, who uses the environment to its fullest. The same scene may feature huge sweeping shots of the Silk Road with epic battles taking place between hundreds of men, before cutting a tight shot of Huo An or another member of the party fighting in the city streets. Battles are both huge in scale and personal, which is a tough feat to achieve.
Lee’s use of colour is subtle but distinct, and through this is much better able to set the emotion of the scene where the writing would not. Different countries and sides have different colours – from the Indians wearing white, the Huns wearing black and even the Romans are split between red (Lucius’ legion) and blue (Tiberius’ troops), so we know who to root for in the carnage that unfolds. Lee is adept at action sequences, and with Jackie Chan’s flawless choreography, the battles are by far the most entertaining aspect of the film. It’s gotten some bum reviews, and that’s understandable, but if you’re willing to overlook some snoozeworthy story and dialogue, you won’t be disappointed.
Verdict: Imperfect to say the least, Dragon Blade is still a pretty entertaining piece of Chinese Cinema
Dragon Blade (2015)
Also known as:
Celestial General, Heroic Army)
Director: Daniel Lee
Writer: Daniel Lee
Jackie Chan – Huo An
John Cusack – Lucius
Adrien Brody – Tiberius
Jozef Waite – Publius
Lin Peng – Cold Moon
Mika Wang – Xiu Qing
Choi Siwon – Yin Po
Xiao Yang – Captain
Wang Taili – Rat
Sammy Hung – Red Sun
Yoo Seung-jun – Cougar
Lorie Pester – The Parthian Queen
Vanness Wu – Christian
Karena Lam – Karena
Feng Shaofeng – General Huo Qubing
Sharni Vinson – Parthian Queen