If you go into Dragon Blade with low expectations, I won’t hold it against you. A world that has John Cusack and Adrien Brody matching up against the Jackie Chan as equals in battle must have lost the plot however intriguing that prospect may be and lest we forget, this film is inspired by the true events that see Empires hang in the balance circa 50 B.C. around the seemingly important Silk Road. As soon as I’m done with this review I’m hitting the Googlesphere.
You would think this whole experience would have been a treat for the three headliners but Chan and Cusack looked like they showed up for a more serious film. I may be wrong. Brody however revels in this slimy role he is given as the treacherous Tiberius. The power hungry Tiberius is the devious brain behind most of the chaos and violence on-screen and he murders his Roman consul father and tries to kill his little brother, Publius (Jozef Liu Waite), leading to the exile of Cusack’s General Lucius and his men who stay loyal to Publius. Tiberius’ schemes extend East to the Huo An (Chan) and his Silk Road protection squad. FYI, the Silk Road is an important trade route that serves a large number of varying nations hence the need for this Protection Squad which tries to keep the peace. There is a contrived development that sees Huo and his Protection Squad framed for a murder and robbery on the Silk Road. Huo and his men are sentenced to hard labour at the Wild Geese Gate where prisoners serve as the labour rebuilding the city that once stood there.
The prison/building site provides the meeting point for the exiled Lucius (who arrives with his men and Publius) and Huo, who has begun to look less like a prisoner doing hard time and more like a building contractor. In a lesson in work and happiness, Huo leads the prisoners and the exiled Romans to rebuild the city and in exchange for the Romans’ aid, Huo agrees to help Lucius reach the Parthian Empire and eventually restore Publius to his rightful place. When the city is finally rebuilt, the banners of this co-op fly above the city in corny unity. Again I say do not forget to hit up Google. Huo is all about that unity y’all and he embodies what Director Daniel Lee tries to push as his central message amidst all this strife. Huo believes a world that sees unity between all the warring tribes, nations, and races that use the Silk Road is possible. He is an eternal optimist and pacifist of near ridiculous proportions. He would have been dead in the first 100 pages if he were a George R.R. Martin character. He uses the dull end of his blade in duels, opts for disarming foes and spilling blood is such a taboo to him so much so he spares enemy combatants in the in the heat of intense battle.
Whilst this is an admirable trait it eliminates nuance and makes you question how he became such a respected fighter in such a violent period of time. Even the biblical David, a man after God’s own heart, was a man of pure violence so much so God himself acknowledged it. Lee’s pacifist philosophy becomes problematic when he loses his way in the final moments and earns his R rating by serving up a brutal convoluted scenes of fighting in a proper battle of the five, six or seven armies. I couldn’t really keep track and as you may come to see, it didn’t really matter considering the way things nonsensically turned out. You could argue the brutal battle scenes added weight to the pacifist musings but it just had an air of double standards and gratuity about it. Lee believed he was making an epic film so of course he had to play his CGI hand and deliver the befitting finale. He employs the wide screen shots of charging armies and has the sombre score backing the slow motion shots of soldiers falling in battle. All neat and tidy but lacking substance. Lee’s handling of the more intimate moments of violence earlier in the film also come off as distasteful and unsympathetic to the characters he had written.
There is an overall consistency lacking in the way our director presents this world to us and he doesn’t trust his audience enough constantly reminding us why certain characters feel or act a certain way. He employs flashbacks (most of them needless) and just overuses the pathos card when it comes to the bond Huo and Lucius form. Maybe this is because he doesn’t trust the relationships he creates either and he is probably right on that one. Dragon Blade won’t bore you. It is amusing and engaging enough in its own way and Brody brings some welcome bite to the film. The opening scenes are an unrestrained throw back to the Jackie Chan of whence in the way a Huo fight scene was choreographed (Chan is credited as the action director) and some other bits of humour. It also reminded me of why I’ve not revisited Chan’s films. I however did think of New Police Story and how different in tone it was to the usual Chan fare. That may be worth a second look.