Director: Daniel Lee
Writer: Daniel Lee
Producer: Jackie Chan, Susanna Tsang
Cast: Jackie Chan, John Cusack, Adrien Brody, Lin Peng, Mika Wang, Choi Siwon, Xiao Yang, Wang Taili, Sammy Hung, Yoo Seung-jun, Lorie Pester, Karena Lam Kar Yan
Running Time: 103/127 min.
By Kyle Warner
The casting lineup of Jackie Chan, John Cusack, and Adrien Brody for a historical action movie sounds downright crazy – and also, I must admit, rather intriguing. Just ten years ago a movie headlined by those stars would’ve sounded even weirder, but the fall from their A-list status has thrown them together in that very particular level of Hell known as the Daniel Lee Historical Epic. Because of the silly trailers and bad vibes, I wasn’t expecting much from Dragon Blade. However, decent word-of-mouth praise and an appreciation for the three actors made me just curious enough to check it out.
I regretted my decision almost immediately. It’s very clear early on that Dragon Blade is a tone-deaf, ham-fisted movie.
Inspired by a true story, Dragon Blade follows a Roman legion that’s traveling the Silk Road in China. They’re tired and starving, so they require a place to rest. Their general (John Cusack) seeks to sack a city, but the defender of that city (Jackie Chan) convinces both sides to set aside their differences and share the city. In order to earn their keep, the Romans help rebuild the city’s defenses, promising to do so in 15 days. Of course during this time of rushed construction the men take time to dance, spar, and engage in general male bonding that crosses the cultural divide. But not everything is fun and games! An evil Roman Consul (Adrien Brody) is taking his army in pursuit of Cusack, which leads to a confrontation on the Silk Road.
Why are Cusack’s Romans hiding out with Jackie Chan? Why does Adrien Brody want to kill everybody? Well, are you a fan of exposition? Half-way through the film John Cusack sits down to explain his backstory and motivations: “I served under Consul Marcus Licinius Crassus Dives. He moved his troops to the Parthian Empire, formed an alliance with the Queen, who is the sister of our Lady Crassus. Consul Marcus’ elder son, Tiberius, is a vicious and treacherous man. The Consul was planning on naming his youngest son Publius to be his heir and successor. He entrusted me to keep the child alive. The young lord started having problems with his eyes. The Parthian Queen kindly sent medicine to heal his vision. Tiberius laced it with poison, blinding his brother so that he could never become Consul…” and it goes on and on from there, giving us more information than necessary. During the dialogue we get flashbacks to some characters that we never see again and are treated to the first glimpse of a Queen who will become important later on (but only after we’ve almost totally forgotten about her). Cusack reads the lines with about the same enthusiasm that I felt when I went back to rewatch the scene so that I could quote the dialogue. (Which is to say: very little.)
That scene, I think, best explains what’s wrong with the movie: the screenplay sucks. Writer/director Daniel Lee (White Vengeance) shows no understanding of pacing, eloquence, or editing dramatic tension. Info dumps are dropped on the audience like a load of bricks. Characters we don’t bother to know the names of are killed with tearjerker melodrama. And the dialogue, OHHH the dialogue! Later in the film, Cusack begs Brody to spare the young Roman lord’s life, saying that he’s committed no crime and poses no threat. Brody responds, “Of course he’s committed a crime! His crime… his crime is that he took the place in your hearts that belonged to me.” In the words of Harrison Ford, “You can type this shit, but you sure can’t say it.” Daniel Lee, who is no friend to fans to historical epics, deserves a harsh talking-to. (To be fair: I watched the US cut which apparently trims approx. 20 minutes from the film. Whether some of the film’s editing and choppy storytelling is any better in the original cut is unknown to me.)
While the film is often very violent, the central theme is one of togetherness and acceptance. At the center of the story is the city which Chan is defending and it is made up of people from many different nations, cultures, and races. That they all work together to fight evil is something I thought deserved some credit, especially in days like these. However, good intentions only get you so far.
Jackie Chan is probably the best part of the movie. In the role of Huo An, Chan gets to play a bit of his Greatest Hits: he fights, sings, provides slapstick humor, and he gets to play his new favorite sort of role, that of the self-sacrificing savior. Chan also serves as the film’s action director and the action scenes are more exciting and better filmed than much the rest of Dragon Blade. Some of the action beats are overly familiar (has Chan ever fought a female opponent without tripping her and supporting her fall by putting his hands on her breasts?), but there is some entertainment to be had.
I’m not sure what John Cusack’s doing in the film counts as acting… it’s more like he’s just conveniently standing in front of the camera while it’s rolling. Cusack has hit a bit of a rough patch in recent years (though his work in Love & Mercy was excellent). He appears half-asleep in Dragon Blade, giving the character of Lucius just enough life to remain standing. I don’t necessarily blame him. The film is total shit and he’s smart enough to know it, wisely saving battery life for better film projects.
On the flip side of the coin, Adrien Brody goes all-out playing the outrageously evil Tiberius. Brody, the youngest actor to ever win the Oscar for Best Actor (The Pianist), is also at a strange point in his career. This isn’t the role he’s been looking for. Tiberius is evil and… that’s pretty much all there is to the character. Brody’s over-the-top in the part, so much so that I think he’s either in on the joke with the audience or he’s potentially going mad onscreen, I’m not sure which. At least he provides the film with some laughs.
So yeah, Dragon Blade is not the John Cusack/Jackie Chan action movie we’ve all been waiting for. The movie is made with good intentions, strong production values, and decent action, but a cheesy script and lame performances sink the film into oblivion. I’m still interested in the future films of Chan, Brody, and Cusack; they’ve done enough good work in years past to deserve a pass for this mess of a movie. But as for director Daniel Lee, well, he remains on my Shit List.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 3/10