Note: This is a review of the original, 127-minute cut of the film screened throughout Asia. The international cut runs about 20 minutes shorter and cripples the film. Avoid watching it first if you can.
Daniel Lee’s Dragon Blade isn’t just another Chinese period epic. Its price tag of 65 million dollars makes it the most expensive Chinese film in history, while its opening numbers at the domestic box-office broke records and its final take of 120 million dollars ranks it as the 8th highest-grossing Chinese film. Its cast is truly international : gathered around Chinese A-listers Jackie Chan, William Feng and Karena Lam are Hollywood actors John Cusack and Adrien Brody, Korean actors/pop stars Choi Si Won and Steve Yoo, Australian dancer and scream queen Sharni Vinson, as well as French singer Lorie Pester. And its plot takes considerable licence with history to imagine a meeting of East and West, between the Roman armies and the tribes of Western China.
Jackie Chan is Huo An, who as a Hun orphan was raised by a Chinese general (William Feng) who passed on to him ideals of peace and racial harmony. Now grown up, Huo An is the head of the Silk Road Protection Squad, a group of soldiers mediating strife between the dozens of tribal groups who cohabit this border region, and policing the trade route without using violence, like the ancient equivalent of U.N. peacekeepers. But after being framed for smuggling gold through the border, Huo An and his squad are arrested and sent to Wild Geese Gate, a derelict outpost they are tasked with rebuilding. There, they meet a Roman army headed by General Lucius (John Cusack), who has fled with a few hundred men to protect the life of a noble child (Jozef Waite), whose power-hungry brother Tiberius (Adrien Brody) murdered their father, Consul Crassus (Gregory Allen). After a brief fight, Huo An and Lucius decide to make peace and the Roman fugitives are welcomed into Wild Geese Gate, which they help rebuild with their architectural expertise. But as Chinese and Roman soldiers start to fraternize, the threat of Tiberius taking over the Silk Road looms large, and a confrontation becomes inevitable.
Dragon Blade was written and directed by Daniel Lee, and bears many of the hallmarks of this extremely underrated filmmaker. If anything, it works almost as a spectacular summary (and thus, a simplification) of the themes he tackled in the past decade. The relation between heroism and memory – here embodied by William Feng’s General Huo who is seen in flashbacks and whose armor, set on top of a pillar at Wild Geese Gate, towers over most of the action – is carried over from 2008’s Three Kingdoms : Resurrection of the Dragon. The weight of fratricide, an act that recurs in different ways in Dragon Blade, and the figure of the renegade are spliced from 2010’s 14 Blades. And the concept of rewritten history, as carried out not only narratively but also visually through creative and purposely inaccurate costume design, pervaded both Three Kingdoms and 2011’s White Vengeance. But despite the presence of these Daniel Lee hallmarks along with some of his weaknesses, such as often muddled power play and exposition, Dragon Blade Jackie Chan’s own brand equally, with a big, simplistic message that is endearingly humanistic though sometimes thuddingly patriotic.
The endearingly humanistic part of the message concerns equality among ethnic groups and peace between nations. Nothing subtle, but a big heart doesn’t need subtlety, and for all the fighting and battling to be found in the film, some of the best scenes are actually scenes of peaceful friendship. As Roman and Chinese soldiers come together to rebuild the outpost, we are treated to a wonderfully uplifting, not to mention visually stunning, series of sequences where they exchange architectural techniques, training methods, fighting styles and, in an especially stirring moment, inspiring songs (composed by Henry Lai, whose score as a whole is rich and beautiful). The more thuddingly patriotic side, which had dragged down Chan’s CZ12 quite a bit and was the whole raison d’être of his previous film 1911, is thankfully muted but still present in some slightly cringe-inducing lines, like when Huo An tells Lucius “Roman soldiers are trained to kill, but Chinese soldiers are trained to save lives”. But of course they are.
Still, Dragon Blade is first and foremost a grand spectacle and a visual treat. As usual, Daniel Lee’s art direction (with Eddy Wong and Thomas Chung) is gorgeous, with a special challenge being set and gloriously met for the costumes by the presence of a dozen different ethnic groups on screen. The photography by Lee’s cinematographer of choice, Tony Cheung, is splendid, with the bronze luster of the daytime images being complemented by some stunning chiaroscuro in nighttime scenes. Unexpectedly and despite its sizable budget, the film only has one battle scene, a superb set piece which, in a wonderful flourish reminiscent of Three Kingdoms : Resurrection of the Dragon, is scored in the scene, as each army comes with its musicians and percussionists. The rest of the action is made up of duels, all choreographed with grace and brutality by Jackie Chan’s Stunt Team, as Romans and Chinese trade fighting skills, and Chan consecutively fights Lin Peng, John Cusack and Adrien Brody. Each duel has the same desert setting but a distinct identity (a testament to artful choreography), with the first one being an almost comical pas de deux, the second a dynamic dialogue of fighting skills where both fighters are almost more invested in impressing each other than hurting each other, and the third one a full-on agression. Jackie Chan is still remarkably dynamic and eschews most of his traditional methods in favor of straightforward sword-fighting, and it’s a joy to watch. It must also be said that John Cusack acquits himself superbly with the fighting, a fact that is not so surprising considering he has a black belt in Kickboxing and has been taught by world champion – and Chan’s adversary in Meals on Wheels and Dragons Forever – Benny Urquidez.
The international cast fares unequally. Anchoring everything is Jackie Chan in a warm and hearty performance that mixes his traditional squeaky-clean, happy-go-lucky persona, with the gravitas and emotional weight he’s been accumulating in the past decade with his more serious roles. At 60, he’s still a joy to watch. A lot of people have expressed concern over the casting of John Cusack as a Roman general ; and granted, it’s unexpected casting as Cusack usually carries a very contemporary dry wit and irony, and has rarely fought onscreen. But it works : not only as his world-weary persona is quite fitting for the role of a weathered, disillusioned general, but also because he’s a gifted actor with much more ability to stretch than given credit for (for proof see him as a chilling serial killer in The Frozen Ground, or as a sleazy convict in The Paperboy). He gives a soulful but steely performance and has good chemistry with Chan, and most of all with child actor Jozef Waite, as their characters share an affecting and sweet bond. Adrien Brody makes for a formidable, if completely caricatural villain : the kind of villain who licks his blade after killing an enemy. Still, he too shows good fighting form, and his charismatic overacting at least provides the film with a strong antagonist. It must also be noted that most of the Caucasian supporting roles and extras are much better than the horrid Gweilo actors usually employed in Chinese productions.
Elsewhere, Lin Peng is delightful as a lovestruck bow-wielding Hun warrior, while Sammy Hung cuts a striking figure as her comrade in arms. Korean star Choi Si Won however, gets almost nothing to do, and mere minutes of screen time, even though he’s on the poster. Karena Lam comes back from a five-year hiatus from films, in a sequence set in modern day where two archeologists (Lam and Vanness Wu sporting a laughable curly haircut) find the remains of an ancient city built from Wild Geese Gate, and use a virtual 3D simulator to visualize it. It’s a pointless, misguided sequence that has thankfully been excised from the international cut. Other blemishes that might still be fixed include a sometimes awkward use of fades to black (where a simple cut would be much more seamless) and the fact that, even though each Asian ethnic group is made to speak its own language (with Hun, Uyghur and a few others being heard), the Romans still speak English.
Long Story Short : Though sometimes clumsy, Dragon Blade is a rousing, heartfelt and visually stunning epic that successfully merges Jackie Chan and Daniel Lee’s styles. ****