The latest entry in China’s ongoing commitment to propaganda on a blockbuster scale, ‘Dragon Blade’ is a horrible movie. Despite all the money that was clearly funneled into the production (which is already a hit in China, by the way), it’s kind of amazing how incoherent and incompetent the film is.
At its lowest points, ‘Dragon Blade’ is excruciatingly boring. However, every now and then it’s also unintentionally hilarious, mostly thanks to two clueless performances from American stars who should know better.
Even with a great deal of exposition spelled out on screen and forced into the mouths of the international cast, it’s often hard to tell what’s happening in the movie, but I’ll do my best to come up with something resembling a plot summary. Jackie Chan stars as the leader of a gang of do-gooders called the Silk Road Protection Squad who work for the Chinese government policing and protecting a major trade road. The film opens with Chan and the gang solving yet another dispute because they’re such good guys. They’re also about to rebuild a city when a Roman army led by John Cusack (yes, that John Cusack) appears and challenges Chan and company to a battle for supplies. However, since Chan is such a good guy, he can tell that Cusack is a good guy too and they throw down their swords before completing the fight.
It turns out that Cusack is a Roman general on the run, protecting a child who’s being hunted down by a bloodthirsty and evil Roman Emperor played by Adrien Brody (yes, that Oscar-winning Adrien Brody). Since Chan is such a good guy, he offers Cusack’s army asylum. Together, they rebuild a city that will be a magical place of peace and happiness forever more. Then Adrien Brody shows up with his army and it’s time for a big ol’ battle royale. Or, at least a big battle between Chan, a legion of extras, and stunt doubles awkwardly standing in for Cusack and Brody.
Broken down to a story level, it’s pretty dull stuff. Writer/director Daniel Lee seems to be well aware of the narrative limitations of his assigned project and tries to make up for it with expensive pageantry. There sure are a lot of expensive costumes on display, along with elaborate sets that Lee’s cameras linger over just long enough for everyone to notice the irritating CGI augmentation lathered over nearly every shot. When characters speak, it’s hard to listen because it’s so clear that Lee was more interested in ensuring that the dozen extras behind the dialogue were positioned just right. When characters fight, it’s hard to care. Sometimes the drama is just too convoluted, and sometimes the action is shot in such an irritatingly choppy manner that you can’t even see what’s happening.This is a movie that was made to show off all the expensive toys at the production’s disposal with little regard for the script or characterization.
The only enjoyment to be had in the movie is the result of its cast. Jackie Chan is actually quite good despite everything going so wrong around him. He delivers a few good fights and some nice movie star posturing. It’s a pleasant reminder of what a talent he is as well as how he’s been wasted in recent years. Cusack and Brody are also quite entertaining, but for completely different reasons. They clearly took the job as paychecks and were cast to expand the international appeal whether they fit their roles or not. It’s clear that they both showed up for about a week given that they rarely appear on camera with anyone else. Their shots must have been sectioned off and separated from the main shoot like visual effects, and it shows in a variety of clumsily compiled sequences.
Cusack is as aware of how wildly miscast he was as any audience member and his contempt for the project shows. You can’t really call what he does acting. Sure, he stands on his mark and says the lines, but usually with less effort than seems humanly possible, or with a scowl barely concealing the rage he’s seconds away from unleashing on the crew. As for Brody, he goes full Nic Cage, sporting an absurd wig, committing to a ridiculous accent, and performing as if there are awards available for “Most Acting.” Neither Cusack nor Brody delivers what could be described as “good” performances in conventional terms, but goddamn is it ever fun to watch them flounder.
Thanks to the insane (and insanely lazy) work from Brody and Cusack, ‘Dragon Blade’ fluctuates from being a bad movie and a “so-bad-it’s-good” movie. There are times when this thing is downright hilarious and riotous in its incompetence, and other times when sitting through the thing feels like a chore. As a result, the movie can’t be recommended in good conscience. It has far too much tedium for that. However, if you can watch it with a fast-forward button handy or stumble upon a highlight reel of Cusack and Brody’s scenes, then definitely take a look because you won’t believe your eyes.
Someone needs to let Jackie Chan star in a decent movie again or make one himself. The American actors can be excused for slumming in this production. Sadly, expensive and unwatchable propaganda like this is all that Chan is allowed to make anymore and that’s a cinematic tragedy.