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March 2016

Dragon Blade

cast: Jackie Chan, John Cusack, Adrien Brody, Lin Peng, and Sharni Vinson

director: Daniel Lee

127 minutes (15) 2015
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Signature DVD Region 2

RATING: 4/10
review by J.C. Hartley

Dragon Blade

The genre mash-up; dinosaurs and cowboys in The Valley Of Gwangi (1969), cowboys and aliens in Cowboys And Aliens (2011), strippers and zombies in... well, you get the picture. Dragon Blade pitches in-fighting Roman legions, at the time of the Great Roman Civil War, with Han dynasty border patrols protecting the Silk Road.

Back when I worked for a living, before I adopted the lifestyle of an unaffiliated cultural commentator, I remember listening to an interview with Jackie Chan on the radio at work. Chan said he was getting too old for action-hero movies, and was looking to translate to some more serious roles. Well, I couldn't help thinking at the time that this was a big ask. Chan's movies had been one of those staples for a parent wanting family-fodder with an adult twist. Unfortunately, his decent outings like the first Rush Hour (1998) have been compromised by increasingly whimsical products like The Medallion (2003), and The Tuxedo (2002).

The Hollywood compromise he had been leg-locked into, was superbly illustrated by a Steve Coogan interview, following the promotion of Around The World In 80 Days (2004), where Coogan played the apparent hero Phileas Fogg, but was actually second-fiddle to his manservant Passepartout played by Chan. Coogan reported that during the double-up interviews he had told Jackie that he liked to give each interviewer something different, whereupon Chan had said that he did exactly the same routine for each interview. Sure enough, Coogan said, he found himself having to laugh out loud with apparent spontaneity to the same anecdote, as if he hadn't heard it already 20 times that morning. Thus Chan's career; and here in Dragon Blade we see the same comedic fight routines, the same serious fight routines, the same desperate pathos, the same sentimentality. All is wearing rather thin.

Huo An (Jackie Chan) is head of the Silk Road protection squad, do-gooding among the potentially warring ethnic groups plying their thing along the famous trade route. Intervening in a set-to between Huns and Turks, Huo An masters Cold Moon (Lin Peng) in combat, tears off her veil and, unbeknownst to him, becomes her intended. Returning to his wife (Mika Wang), who runs an inter-racial schoolroom, Huo is accused of treason by using his position as a customs official to smuggle gold. Huo and his men are banished to the Wild Geese Gate to work on the fortifications, but his status as an esteemed warrior is soon called upon when General Lucius (John Cusack) and his cohorts hove into view.

In conversation with his wife Huo has expressed his desire for a world where all races can live in harmony; confronting Lucius, Huo asks if there is any way they can avoid a fight, "Any way no fight?"; Lucius indicates there isn't. This is fine; the old song says, and I paraphrase, 'We don't want to fight but by jingo if we must'... thus an international mash-up movie wears its pacifist heart on its sleeve, while promising Hollywood gore and bloodletting.

General Lucius has rescued Publius (Jozef Waite), the son of his mentor General, from the murderous intentions of the infant's jealous brother Tiberius (Adrien Brody). Lucius' exhausted troops need rest and sustenance, and Lucius intends to take the Wild Geese Gate by force of arms. Huo and Lucius engage in a combat duel to a standstill but are interrupted by a sandstorm, whereupon Huo offers the legion safe haven in the city. Having bonded, the Romans use their advanced engineering skills to rebuild the city walls, thus fulfilling Huo's ambition to unite the races on the Silk Road in harmonious cooperation.

Tiberius arrives, with a massive invasion force, using his pursuit of the renegade Lucius as a front for an invasion of China and an annexation of the Silk Road. Publius is murdered, and Lucius tortured and blinded. Meanwhile, Huo, who has sought the aid of Lin Peng, sees his wife murdered and is himself betrayed to Tiberius by one of his own, and seemingly given up to Tiberius by the tribes he sought to unite. Just as Huo, and the remaining soldiers loyal to Lucius, seem about to be overwhelmed by the massive force under Tiberius, the surrounding ethnic groups who use the Silk Road unite to meet the Roman legions in battle.

An uneasy mix of cod-historical epic, and a middle-class liberal committee filmmaking exercise in touchy-feely international cooperation, this outing would be okay if the dialogue wasn't trite, the movie wasn't overlong, and the whole exercise didn't insult the intelligence with its box-ticking bollocks. The only person to come out of it with any credit is Brody, as a tortured villain who is quite prepared to fight his own battles. Cusack and Chan have a bromance based on lingering stares and meaningful nods.

This 'House of Flapping Togas' plunders clichés from Gladiator (2000), Empire Of The Sun (1987) - a weepy song, and King Arthur (2004), and comes up with a watery emulsion that won't stick no matter how many coats you apply. The production values are of the highest and the battles are spectacular under Chan's fight direction but that's really not enough. Thankfully, on the check disc there were no extras.



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