Committed performances by strong cast but this ambitious epic proves to be beyond the grasp of writer-director Daniel Lee
(WARNING: This review contains spoilers)
The film would definitely seem like it has potential to be good when it features A-list actors like Jackie Chan, John Cusack and Oscar winner Adrien Brody. Unfortunately, this one's a China production directed and written by Hong Kong's Daniel Lee, who hasn't quite have an impressive track record. The visuals look as expensive as its $60 million budget (apparently released in IMAX 3D in China) but the film suffers badly from mediocre script and direction. And let's face it, the East meets West concept is no longer a fresh one, especially when we just had the film Outcast last year, which shares similar plot cliches.
The title Dragon Blade holds no noticeable meaning at all in the movie. If anything, it probably should've been called Dragon Shield or Armour, as the story follows Huo An (Jackie Chan), the commander of the fictional "Silk Road Protection Squad" of the Han Dynasty, whose job is to lead this relatively small group to maintain peace between countries and races in Silk Road (which, in reality, is an impossible duty considering that the Road is like 6,000 km long). He is a man of extreme anti-violence and strictly lives by the motto "turn all foes into friends". Whenever he comes across a dispute between two armies, he will jump into action in attempt to stop a war from happening.
But before the film takes us back to that ancient period, it starts off with a prologue set in modern time where English-speaking Chinese archaeologists (Vanness Wu and Karena Lam) are in search of a legendary city called Regum where Huo An's story took place. I thought this was going to be have some sort of a significant connection or message to the story, but there wasn't, none whatsoever, which seriously made me wonder what were the producers or director thinking. And the dialogues are so cringeworthy it felt as though this scene is only to show that Chinese actors could deliver perfect pretentious English as well. Pretty much the entire film is filled with cheesy dialogues and scenes, but it's more forgivable if the characters are in ancient period as we wouldn't know how people talk and behave back then.
The film certainly doesn't have a very convincing start. After the unnecessary prologue, the film attempts to instantly intrigue by having Jackie Chan to showcase his trademark dodging moves in the first fight sequence where he accidentally grabs the lady's (Lin Peng) boobs and later refuses to have sex with her - all these recycled ideas within the first 10 minutes. The only probable difference here is that his character's key weapons are a mini-shield and a sword with a tied rubber string which allows him to do some cool throw-and-bounce-back recovery techniques. The fight sequences in the film are mostly close angle shots, which makes it far less impressive than long one-shots in wide angle, but its choreography is decent enough to entertain and it's also interesting to see some martial arts displays between ancient Chinese warriors and Roman soldiers.
After being framed and incarcerated to the Wild Geese Gate (where is the set for majority of the film) where prisoners of different ethnics are enslaved to finish the city's construction work, Huo An encounters Romans for the first time and befriends a loyal general named Lucius (John Cusack) who's on the run from The Roman Empire after rescuing the little prince from his evil brother, Tiberius (Adrien Brody), who wants to dominate all countries. If you've seen Outcast recently, this would definitely remind you of this plot similarity. To believe in this friendship between Huo An and General Lucius is possible, the film has to totally ignore the historical fact that the Roman Empire runs a cruel slave society. Slavery is never mentioned in the film. Guess Daniel Lee couldn't handle any heavy subjects when the ones on the table were already challenging for him.
As the story progresses, the film begins to show a bit of charm and, despite the cheesiness and questionable logic, manages to engage emotionally through the committed performances of the three big stars. Chan's portrayal of the noble Huo An is easily likable but at times he's too righteous and humane to a point that it's retarded. There's a laughable scene where he spares the lives of his enemies and tells them to leave even though he's surrounded by hundreds of thousands of soldiers. It's commendable that the story attempts to promote and convey racial unity and peace, but sadly, it feels more like an obligation, or a repayment to a saviour, than a depiction of its true meaning.
Overloaded with stories and plots to tell, Daniel Lee rushes the narratives by slotting in quick flashbacks of these characters instead of giving them proper development. Pity, these characters seem to have a depth that's not explored, especially Adrien Brody's Tiberius who seems more complex than just a vague power-hungry antagonist. But then again, it may still be hard to take them seriously anyway when the protagonist is conveniently multilingual, being able to speak all sorts of languages to communicate with the different races on Silk Road, and somehow he can also converse with the Romans... in English. The cheesiest moment is when the young little Roman prince (Jozef Waite), who's probably only 6 years old, decides to bestow Huo An as the First Centurion of the Roman Legion like a boss, and then in later scenes, the prince goes back to being the baby that he should be for his age.
The other characters like Huo An's squad members and his wife are completely sidelined but that didn't stop Lee from filming slomo and emotional sequences of their death. For K-pop fans who'd likely be fooled into watching this, they would be disappointed to find that Choi Si-won (Super Junior member) only appears in two short scenes.
The final act is pretty much a ripoff of The Hobbit where armies of other countries arrive conveniently at the same time just when Huo An's party is being surrounded. It even has the help of eagles, although they're not as huge and dominating as the ones in The Hobbit. After a series of cliches and typical war action, it all boils down to a climatic one-on-one fight scene. It may be Chan's most unimpressive fight finale, but it's dramatic enough to please the crowd.
What I would've named the film: "1SilkRoad" (you'd get the pun if you live in Malaysia)
Malaysia censorship: There are some graphic war action sequences but nothing seems to be cut.
Second opinion: (none, watched it alone on the first day of Chinese New Year, how sad!)
Verdict: Poorly written and directed but thanks to its visuals and strong cast, it's not completely unwatchable for a Chinese New Year movie.
Rating: 2.5 / 5
Chinese Title: 天将雄狮 (Tian Jiang Siong Shi)
Country / language: China, Hong Kong / Mandarin, English, others
Genre: Historical action drama
Running Time: 126 minutes
Director-writer: Daniel Lee
Cast: Jackie Chan, John Cusack, Adrien Brody, Choi Si-Won
Malaysia Release Date: 19 December 2015
Local Distributor: GSC Movies
Production: Sparkle Roll Media, Huayi Brothers Media, Shanghai Film Group, Home Media & Entertainment Fund, Tencent Video, Beijing Cultural Assets Chinese Film and Television Fund, Visualizer Film Company, Jackie & JJ Productions
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