Dragon Blade is the type of historical actioner you’d expect from star Jackie Chan, one originating from his native China and employing two big-name American stars in John Cusack and Adrien Brody, the latter giving one of the strangest performances of all-time. The excitement of seeing a film that plays fast and loose with history, pitting the Romans against the Chinese in ancient times, isn’t something to be easily denied.
Given all this you might expect some pretty knockout stuff, and you’d be correct. Only for all the wrong reasons. Here is one of the most trite and preachy films I’ve seen all year, and that’s saying something.
Things begin with two archaeologists, in the present day, searching for Regum, the fabled city established by Huo An (Jackie Chan) and his followers. Once discovered we – the audience – are cinematically transported back to the era of Huo An and it’s here the story begins.
Jackie Chan plays Huo An, a pacifist during the Han Dynasty, and part of the Silk Road Protection Squad, a group sworn to prevent violence on the silk road while promoting peace. While this sounds more like a wrestling tag-team than what his job actually entails, Huo An is a man who commands respect; everyone is a Yes Man when it comes to Huo An, and if you’re not it’s only because you haven’t met him yet.
He’s a bit preachy yet still universally revered among his men, not to mention an expert fighter. And who better than Jackie Chan in such a role? It’s a difficult proposition to dislike Jackie Chan so his character’s inherent likability works here.
Despite all this, Huo An and his group are captured by the government (for reasons that seem arbitrary), accused of corruption and quickly sentenced to grueling labor at the Goose Gate, a derelict fortress. It’s not long before a Roman Legion, led by Lucius (Cusack), arrives seeking help, bringing with him a blind boy, Publius (Jozef Waite), and a whole ton of family drama.
It’s later revealed it was Tiberius (Brody) who murdered his father and blinded his own brother Publius, leaving Lucius without a home and the crazy Tiberius and his army hot on his trail. Huo An, being the compassionate man he is, allows the Romans to take refuge in the fortress and provides them with much needed water and shelter, befriending Lucius in the process.
Anachronistic history aside, what could have at least have been a fun, action-packed historical farce comes off like amateur hour. There’s really only one person to blame for this: writer/director Daniel Lee, who presents his ‘epic’ like a shoddy television commercial, using fadeouts like station breaks to frequently cut away to events miles away.
Not only does this bog down a story that’s already bogged down with melodrama, but the film is loaded with flashbacks. Any mention to a past event automatically triggers a flashback; heck, the whole film is actually just one huge flashback! But seriously, this excessive need to replay events actually hurts the narrative. There’s so much allusion to Tiberius and his dastardly behavior that when the character finally shows up it almost feels irrelevant.
Not even the greatly choreographed action scenes, directed expertly by Jackie Chan himself, can salvage the film from itself. Despite the use of slow-motion they’re admittedly pretty cool, though most occur toward the end of the film.
Furthermore, the story is so concerned with letting you know where it stands on the issue of violence that it borders on obsession, almost as if the filmmakers are trying to paint the past as some wonderful place of benevolent non-violent individuals who only strike if struck in self-defense.
By the the the credits rolled my neck was tense from the head tossing at the awful dialogue and my eyes sore from the eye rolling sentimentality. The peaceful ideology is so melodramatic I often found myself considering the opposite as a way out, cheering for a Tiberian victory as Brody’s crazy, baffling performance can’t be denied.
Speaking of bad performances, it’s worth mentioning that Dragon Blade has one of the worst child performances I’ve seen since Jake “Yippee!” Lloyd in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace with Jozef Waite’s blind Publius. His character is aided by his disability, at times it looks like he’s actively reading his lines with the nuance of a child learning how to read. Oh, and the scene where he cries?
There’s a reason why you rarely see a child actor crying onscreen. I’m assuming this is difficult to pull off, but it’s as annoying onscreen as it is off, especially when the kid wailing seems to take forever. To make matters worse they continually cut away to his laughable expression. Cruelty on my part? I don’t think so. Lee doesn’t seem interested in crafting a historical film at all, just an action-packed one. Claiming it’s “inspired by true events” should have been the first clue I was in for a bad time.
Dragon Blade is a fantasy of epic proportions, one that comes off as sentimental and jaded, lost in its own fantasy of a world of rational people trying to deter violence in order to build a harmonious society. There is no pragmatism in Huo An’s ideology appearing naive and childish, and it just gets repetitive and dogmatic. There’s even a montage where Huo An and his prisoners rebuild a wall alongside their new Roman friends. The whole affair is hokey and as nauseating as a film equivalent of “We Are The World”. Yeah, it’s that bad.