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Dragon Blade review: ambitious Chinese throwback
January 15, 2016
Dragon Blade is a 3D blockbuster that was a huge hit in China, where its mix of Eastern and Western stars, plethora of action and huge scale won over audiences in their droves.
Huo An (Jackie Chan) and his band of merry men the Silk Road Protection Squad are exiled to a prison camp to build a city. General Lucius (John Cusack) turns up with a small army of defectors being chased by Roman leader Tiberius (Adrien Brody) and his army to claim the Silk Road and Lucius’ young ward, a blind prince. Of course, Huo An allies his Silk Road Protection Squad with Lucius’ elite Roman Legion to protect the Silk Road and the young prince, and the stage is set.
Since Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon, for years we’ve seen Chinese action stars like Jet Li, Chow Yun Fat and Jackie Chan ship over to Hollywood to appear in American films, usually paired with American stars, to varying degrees of success. Dragon Blade turns the tables, showing just how strong the Chinese film market is becoming by casting Hollywood A-Listers John Cusack and Adrian Brody in a proper Chinese-style historical epic with lots of martial arts on display. This mishmash of a film is part kung fu flick, part war film, part sword-and-sandals movie, and goes at a slow pace and packs the screen with vast visuals.
Jackie Chan is excellent but as he gets older, he is adding to his natural charisma and physical skills by developing into a stronger actor. This is Jackie showing his chops. Cusack is as always, very good and his natural charm is on show, but he too is branching out and playing more character roles in recent years. His Lucius is honourable but tired, his performance is committed despite the extreme material compared to his other work.
Seeing Chan team up with Cusack is a little absurd at first, but he was kickboxing as far back as the ‘80s in Say Anything, while Grosse Pointe Blank had an iconic fight scene that ranks up there with the best. Their scenes together have chemistry and it doesn’t take long to get used to the idea of the pair facing off with each other. Similarly, Adrien Brody has great fun as the villain of the piece. His performance is completely over the top, and clearly influenced by kung fu movies of the past, though it could seem out of place to those not well versed in the genre
The same could be said about the film as a whole. Tonally Dragon Blade can feel a bit odd if you’re not used to watching Chinese films, and this is very much a Chinese-style film with all the eccentricities that a veteran admirer of these types of films is used to. The film is littered with not at all subtle lessons about peace and the brotherhood of all mankind in a way that some of the best Chinese action films are.
The humour is at times off kilter to the Western eye. One shtick sees Jackie Chan accidentally touching a woman’s breast – the sort of joke common to the genre, but it just seems a slightly stranger due to the involvement of the Hollywood stars. However this is far more successful than many of the Hollywood films that cast Asian stars but seem to somehow dull and inhibit what makes them so dynamic and interesting.
Although it is a little overly reliant on CGI for some the bigger sequences, the scale is vast and there is plenty of variety in the action. A particular highlight is seeing some Roman infantry shield wall techniques mixed in with the kung fu. Overall, Dragon Blade is an ambitious film that could signal the start of many more Hollywood actors appearing in Chinese blockbusters.
Words by Hamza Mohsin