Adrien Brody Dragon Blade

Dragon Blade Review: Globalization: The Movie

Friday, September 18, 2015 Rob Samuelson

Dragon Blade

Director: Daniel Lee
Writer: Daniel Lee
Starring: Jackie Chan, John Cusack, Adrien Brody
Rating: Two and a half stars out of five.
Available now on demand.

Dragon Blade is, in the aggregate, a poor motion picture. But it is a fascinating and instructive one, something that can teach on one hand and enthrall (at times) on the other. The reasons for this are more systematic and business-oriented than purely failures of storytelling, although that is part of the film's inability to be engaging in a sustainable fashion. But first, there are a couple things to understand about how it came to be before its cinematic merits can be discussed in the proper context.

We live in a time of massive change in the film industry. As China grows as a consumer market, more and more movies are being made with internationalist intent. The things that translate across culture tend to be broad, the stuff that's easy to pick up with the naked eye without having a strong background in another culture. That is why big action franchises, with their focus on wordless movement and sometimes slapstick comedy that someone from any corner of the globe can understand, translate into massive billion dollar worldwide successes.

Another wrinkle to this is the shared financial burden of film production. In the past, there would more often than not be film industries in most developed nations, typically independent of one another – the main exceptions to this rule applied in Europe, where companies across sovereign nations have long co-financed films, partly because of the size and proximity of the countries. Today, there is much more cross pollination happening in places that have often only imported films wholesale from other places. Part of this is due to the extreme expense of making a modern blockbuster and partly it's because of the desire to appeal to as many people as possible to, in turn, make money hand over fist, usually with the lion's share of the profits going to Hollywood studio executives. But now, thanks to all this profit sharing, the industries in other countries have a larger piece of the pie. They are turning around and producing their own action spectaculars with Hollywood involvement but not necessarily oversight.

Which brings us back to Dragon Blade, a Chinese production that nonetheless has a huge American and European influence (and commercial aspiration). In many key ways, Dragon Blade serves as a meta-narrative of cultural exchange. Its premise is that Jackie Chan's Huo An and his well-trained band of roving cop-warrior-security guards serve to protect the commercial throughway the Silk Road during the Roman Empire's ascent to the world's primary power. Indeed, it takes place right at the end of Julius Caesar's reign, when the Republic became the Empire, another layer of meta commentary on the combination and consolidation of filmmaking power.

A Roman legion led by Lucius (John Cusack) finds itself lost along the Silk Road. Breaking their own rule, the Romans do as Romans do even when they're not in Rome by deciding to go a'conquerin'. However, they come along Huo An and his Silk Road Protection Squad and quickly come to an understanding and agree to mutual protection. The Romans use their engineering skills to help the Protection Squad rebuild a war-decimated fortress called the Goose Gate. They find much (everything) to admire about each other and make constant grand gestures toward the humanistic good of collaboration and harmonious coexistence. The movie tells us time and again how good it is to respect and care for the cultures of those who are different from us.

And that's just it. Dragon Blade is telling us these things. It also shows us in no uncertain terms how it feels about cooperation and “Kumbaya.” These are undoubtedly good things and sincerely felt by those saying them in real life, but as storytelling it is death. It removes internal turmoil and tries to live in a place of grace without going through the hard work of earning gracefulness. This is a film that, when given the choice between Occam's Razor and a heavy rock to smash an idea to smithereens, it will always go for the latter and think it is the former.

The growing bond between Cusack's Lucious and Chan's Huo An makes sense on paper, even if it is all warmed over treacle. In practice between one actor speaking a second language (Chan) and another tasked with espousing clumsy, easily recognizable American rhetoric (Cusack), everything falls apart. This is due to something foreign audiences probably complain about constantly when seeing Americanized versions of themselves in Hollywood movies. The Chinese people making this film do not have a firm grasp on the nuances and eccentricities of American speech. Cusack, either through a lack of interest or under the direction of a filmmaker who wants there to be no cross-cultural confusion of meaning, goes into automation. His performance is not simply wooden, it is Petrified Forest levels of inert. He is there to explain the plot and set up the conflict, and he does nothing to imbue it with personality or transcend the limitations of a language barrier. He is simply a body meant to look stoic and brave while he says things about being stoic and brave.

The conflict Lucius is there to prepare the audience for arrives far too late to have its full effect. Adrien Brody plays Tiberius, a striver in Roman society who is making his play for power. He arrives to ensure there are no other claims to his power, including his blind, prepubescent brother who is under Lucius's care. Brody brings a quasi-naturalistic lift to a film with its dangerously enlarged heart on its sleeve Brody's Tiberius is a man who grows more comfortable with evil the longer he lives with it. He mixes mustache-twirling evil and a quiet brokenness over the atrocities he has committed to reach his perch – not to mention the ones he plans to do in the future. But he has this attitude of, “I've gone this far already, why not own it?” that is exhilarating to watch, even if they arrive in short bursts before Dragon Blade recedes into its obvious surface-level themes.

It is a shame Dragon Blade was not made 90 years ago, because it would have made an excellent silent epic where the overwrought sentiments of its script and actors could have breathed. Writer-director Daniel Lee gives a storybook sheen to everything, an artificial golden-sepia tone to the desert where most of it takes place. His tendencies toward oversimplification work wonders with his use of color of clothing to designate different races, tribes, and countries. They can occasionally feel like a game of Starcraft, especially during the climactic battle sequence, but visual conspicuousness has a much more comfortable time blending into cinema than vocal or scripted obviousness.

Where Lee trips up on the visual cues is with his unnecessary devotion to flashing back to things that sometimes happened mere moments before, to wipe away any doubt that the audience did not understand what had occurred. Sometimes the flashbacks feel as though they were extensions of the scenes immediately before them. They could easily have been cut if there was more trust placed in the audience's cognitive abilities. This speaks to the international financial flavor of things, as they cannot afford to lose one pair of eyeballs, so they make sure to cover their bases again and again in a way that is beyond irritating to anyone paying attention.

But Dragon Blade loops back around to being good again in a visual sense with its action, which is staged confidently. The 61-year-old Chan is still spry and able to participate in the the fight scenes, even if several of them are shot from the waist up to avoid making him move like the madman he used to be. He retains much of his environmental awareness, scanning the areas around him to look for weapons, both traditional and not, in order to win so he can continue on his merry way of peace among the humans of the world.

For the mixed bag of sometimes joyous visual wonder Dragon Blade has to offer, it is still a failure. It is overly concerned with checking off audience demographic boxes than it is with telling a story confidently. Its humanistic themes are the types of things people should strive for, but not because a lackluster movie condescendingly tells them to do so. For it to be more successful, it would have to show, through begrudging, pragmatic partnerships turning into mutual respect turning to commitment over time.

As a piece of film history, though, Dragon Blade could be significant. Neither Cusack nor Brody has been a big star for some time, but they remain second fiddle to the star from Hong Kong in a movie that clearly cost a lot of money. That is not the historical norm with these things. The fact that the Chinese man was the center of the story and not the valiant war-monger Roman soldier is another fascinating note. It is a clumsy, clunky fiasco of a film, but it could very well signal the coming trends in the financial sector of the film business in which studios around the globe collaborate to tell simple (or simplistic) stories on grand scales to reach audiences literally everywhere and bring in truckloads of money. Dragon Blade may be the first draft of a new world cinema, before filmmakers are truly able to have a foot firmly planted in each culture they are trying to cross onscreen. With practice, those ham-fisted exposition dumps could turn into nuanced understanding of the peoples being depicted. With any luck, future work of this variety will find the actual grace this pretended to have.

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