All those fans of cinema out there who have long wished for an action adventure epic set in 50 BC starring Jackie Chan, John Cusack and Adrien Brody need wait no longer. Dragon Blade – from Hong Kong writer-director Daniel Lee – is here. And it is inspired by true events. Cut down from over two hours in its original version to a more streamlined 100 minutes for an international release, it is possible that much needed characterisation was slashed from a film where narrative coherence and depth certainly play second fiddle to spectacle. Dragon Blade does boast expertly-choreographed fight scenes and set pieces, though. Chan – and even his less experienced counterparts – demonstrates his perennial physicality but it is hard to tell why Cusack and Brody became involved in a project where their acting talents are so forcibly stifled by an underdeveloped, porous script that is riddled with clichés.
Perhaps it’s just that Cusack isn’t best suited to Chinese proverb one-liners. In a time when no less than 36 warring nations fight for control along the famed Silk Road, a major trade artery, and men seem willing to throw down at the drop of a hat, only one man’s utopian values asks the question, why can’t we all just get along? Jackie Chan, sporting an impeccable goatee and exemplary eye make-up, plays peacemaker Huo An, leader of the Silk Road Protection Squad. Framed for a treasonous crime he did not commit, he and his men are banished to the far flung city of Wild Geese Gate which they must rebuild as punishment for perceived wrongdoings. It is here that a great Roman, Lucius (a long-haired, leather headband-wearing John Cusack) – also exiled – leads his Legion of men, with the blind son of his former commander in tow. Lost in the vast desert landscape and dead on their feet, Huo An grants the Romans shelter.
The People’s Front of Judea once questioned what the Romans had ever done for them but in Dragon Blade the imperial might and construction expertise of Lucius’ band of now merry men has the derelict city walls rebuilt in no time thanks to a hasty ‘isn’t it great we’re all friends now’ montage. Lots of smiles and back-slapping all round. The irritating editing of Dragon Blade involves incessant flashbacks of memories of earlier events being inserted so frequently it almost feels like half the film is seen twice. One such example occurs during the rousing singing of a Roman war song which leaves many of the grizzled warriors reaching for the tissues. In touch with their emotions they may be but the newly formed Chinese/Roman alliance must be wary of Adrien Brody’s Tiberius.
A real nasty so and so, it was he that blinded the young child now in Lucius’ care and who just so happens to be his wee brother. Families, eh? Who’d have ’em. The all-conquering Tiberius has domination of the Silk Road in his sights and that inevitably means sacrificing much of the film to mammoth battle scenes. The message of conciliation and diplomacy which Daniel Lee sets out to tell through Huo An in Dragon Blade is an undoubtedly admirable one; however, such little affinity is developed with any characters onscreen that there is nothing more to take away from this film than its impressive visuals and never ending sword fights. It’ll be on Netflix before you know it.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens