Monday, September 7, 2015

In Theaters/On VOD: DRAGON BLADE (2015)

(China - 2015)

Written and directed by Daniel Lee. Cast: Jackie Chan, John Cusack, Adrien Brody, Sharni Vinson, William Feng, Lin Peng, Mika Wang, Lorie Pester, Siwon Choi, Xiao Yang, Sammy Hung, Jozef Liu Waite. (R, 104 mins)

When the $65 million IMAX 3-D Chinese epic DRAGON BLADE became a blockbuster hit throughout Asia in February 2015, it didn't take long for a badly photo-shopped trade poster to explode on the internet thanks to the presence of John Cusack as a Roman centurion and Adrien Brody as a villainous nobleman in 50 B.C. Many even questioned if the poster was some kind of prank. No, it's a real movie, primarily a vehicle for star/producer Jackie Chan who, aside from his KUNG FU PANDA voice work, hasn't headlined an American film since the 2010 remake of THE KARATE KID. The 61-year-old action legend has instead settled into a series of generally serious Asian films like the period epic 1911 (2011) and typical--albeit with less death-defying stuntwork--Chan outings like CHINESE ZODIAC and the recently-released POLICE STORY: LOCKDOWN. DRAGON BLADE was a pet project for Chan, a story of disgraced warriors who team with an outcast faction of the Roman Army to defeat a power-crazed despot intent on taking control of the famed Silk Road.

The end result is a mess, at least in Lionsgate's re-edited, 104-minute American cut that's just arrived in a handful of theaters and on VOD (memo to Lionsgate's trailer team: you can't call something "a worldwide phenomenon" while dumping it on VOD). They cut nearly 25 minutes out of the film, among other things jettisoning an entire present-day prologue and epilogue involving archaeologists studying the Silk Road battle site. The Mandarin-language opening section is whiplash-inducing in its choppiness, making it impossible to figure out who's who except for the most familiar faces and a select few of the main supporting characters (YOU'RE NEXT's Sharni Vinson is prominently billed but has a role so small that it's literally blink-and-you'll-miss-her, so perhaps she was among the cuts made by Lionsgate). Chan is Huo An, a captain of the Silk Road Protection Squad, a close-knit group of warriors assigned by the government to keep peace among the many peoples who live in the Silk Road region. When the group is set up by one of their own and accused of gold smuggling, the entire squad is sentenced to the prison outpost Wild Geese Gate. It's here that they live in banishment until they're raided by a Roman army headed by General Lucius (Cusack). English-speaking Lucius instigates a one-on-one battle with English-speaking Huo An until a sandstorm approaches and the peace-seeking Huo An offers the soldiers food and shelter. Lucius is leading an army of rebel officers who have absconded with Publius (Jozef Liu Waite), a child prince chosen by his father to be the next heir, skipping over Publius' scheming, treacherous older brother Tiberius (Brody). Like most passed-over royals, Tiberius didn't take the news well and reacted by killing his father and poisoning his baby brother's eye medication, causing him to go blind. Tiberius is leading a 100,000-man army along the Silk Road in hot pursuit of Lucius, who is determined to keep Publius alive.

It's not a bad story, and at times, some of the visuals and battle scenes are pretty good, even if the CGI and greenscreen gets a little wonky-looking (boy, I get tired of writing that). But in the attempt to please the Chan faithful, the tone is all over the place. You get everything from slapstick comedy to blood-splattered battle with arterial spray and eye gougings. There's an absurd amount of over-emotional male bonding as Chan and writer/director Daniel Lee (BLACK MASK) try to turn this into a BRAVEHEART-level man-weepie (interestingly, Chan offered Cusack the gig after Mel Gibson turned it down). But nowhere is DRAGON BLADE sillier than in a long early sequence when Huo An is informed that Chinese officials will be arriving at Wild Geese Gate in 15 days to ensure that they've completed their assignment of rebuilding the fortress and the surrounding area. If it's not done, they'll all be executed and it's a job that would take six months of round-the-clock work. Fear not, Huo An's new bro Lucius says. With Roman ingenuity and good old-fashioned teamwork, the Romans and the Chinese can work together to rebuild this city with nothing less than an energetically plucky display of "Let's put on a show!" verve and moxie that would've made Mickey Rooney proud. They even have time to take a break where each army shows off its pageantry and formations in what amounts to a sort-of 50 B.C. Far East version of BRING IT ON. Then they sing war songs, drink, and bond and cry some more, as Publius declares Huo An an official Roman centurion. These kinds of radical tonal shifts play better with Asian moviegoers than they do with their western counterparts--the first half of DRAGON BLADE is so earnest and corny that it's honestly hard to dislike, but then it decides to get relatively serious when Tiberius takes center stage, and the shift just feels like too much after all the slapstick and shameless sentimentality that came before it. I say "relatively serious" since Brody, no doubt still basking in the glow of his INAPPROPRIATE COMEDY triumph, seems to be inspired by Nicolas Cage at his most Cagey. With a ridiculous wig, preening mannerisms and an inconsistent fey British accent that comes and goes without warning, Brody is obviously opting for the hammy route in his silliest performance since groping himself as the anagrammed "Byron Deidra" in Dario Argento's GIALLO. Cusack is ludicrously miscast but fares better than in most of his recent Cusackalypse Now trifles. Sure, the idea of him playing a Roman centurion is amusing--and he's more or less admitted he did it as a lark--but it's hardly any worse than most of his other recent jobs, with the exception of his acclaimed performance as Brian Wilson in LOVE & MERCY.

Asian audiences flocked to DRAGON BLADE and made it a huge hit, but they'll flock to anything and make it a huge hit. All the movies that go straight to VOD in the US are box office smashes in Asia. Make no mistake--this is strictly VOD material here, ready-made for Redbox. It might've had some potential as a word-of-mouth, sleeper crowdpleaser once it hit Netflix Instant, but well over half of the film is in Mandarin with English subtitles, so that's out, though I respect Lionsgate's decision to leave it Mandarin and not dub the Chinese cast members in English. At the end of the day, DRAGON BLADE's only notoriety is the unlikely sight of Cusack and Brody playing Ancient Roman dress-up on a Chinese vacation, but once the snickering dies down and the novelty wears off, you're left with a fairly middling, forgettable adventure.

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