DRAGON BLADE - Reviewed By Movies Zilizotafsiliwa Kiswahili

It is China against Rome in the historical action epic Dragon Blade. Written and directed by Daniel Lee, this East-meets-West adventure film premiered in China in early 2015 during the Chinese New Year holiday period. Running 25 minutes shorter, it was later released in other territories. 

The film is set in 48 B.C. when ancient China’s Silk Road is threatened by the 36 races that lay claim on the area. Huo An (Jackie Chan) and his Chinese peacekeeping troupe known as “Silk Road Protection Squad” are constantly working on establishing order among the various ethnic minorities in the country’s remote western regions. After being framed for gold smuggling, the troop is exiled to Wild Goose Gate, a rundown city badly needing repair.

Now enters Lucius (John Cusack), a general who flees from his Roman homeland to protect his young master Publius (Jozef Waite) from falling victim to his brother’s betrayal and rebellion. Along with his Roman legion, Lucius plans to lay siege and invade Wild Goose Gate. However, a sandstorm interrupts Lucius’ and Huo An’s duel and after seeing the Roman army’s physical fatigue, the Chinese commander opens the city’s gate and offers them food and shelter.

In exchange, the Romans aid the myriad cultural groups in rebuilding Wild Goose Gate and eventually, they become friends. Just in time to raise their flag of brotherhood over the resurrected city, the treacherous Roman consul Tiberius (Adrien Brody) and his 100,000-man army come marching on to take over the land.

Expected of any Chinese-themed action films, Dragon Blade is an ambitiously grandiose entertainment. It is visually pleasing with strong physical and emotional appeal. Production design is efficient even though its stunning widescreen visuals , such as the endless sun-kissed Silk Road, are obviously CGI-enhanced. Choreographed by Chan himself, the acrobatic action sequences are basic yet engrossing and breathtaking as ever. The fusion of Asian martial arts, gladiator-like swordplay and Roman infantry battle formations is very sharp and refreshing. The movie also has knacks for melodrama, especially towards the climactic battle where elements of sacrifice from characters we learned to love are tearfully witnessed. With its ability to mix drama and comedy in an action-heavy narrative, the film is gripping and stirring throughout.

However, Dragon Blade is poorly written, too formulaic that it never surprises. It bears the same pattern for heroic tales. Its dialogues are too cheesy and generic. Just when moments are intensely moving, they suddenly become flat and absurd as crappy interruption follows. Like when the Roman boy heartfully sings his native land’s anthem, the ensuing emotion-laden silence is broken by an awkward standard-issue round of applause. For lack of better introduction, the feature has some banal and unnecessary prologue where two archaeologists (Vanness Wu, Karena Lam) discover the lost city of Regum. Though it claims to be based on true events, historical accuracy has been once again terribly sacrificed for the sake of entertainment. Google and Wikipedia might have so much to say about it.

The Asian casts are solid but the Americans are either passable or dreadful. Chan is as good as ever. In this film, he simply does not capitalized on his physical abilities but give more heart, whether in comic or serious moments, as his character Huo An has complexities he can masterfully play on. Chan also strikes an effective chemistry with Cusack. Lin Peng also shines through with Moon as she transformed from a beautiful folly to a lovable heroine. He may be too American but Cusack is surprisingly convincing as an ancient Roman warrior. His combat scenes are also successful and believable. Though he makes the most of his limited screen time, Brody is just too painful to watch, not due to his long unkempt flowing hair, but because he does nothing but scowl or glare. The other American casts are as problematic as their appearance brings in an uncomfortable otherworldly feeling.

Amidst all the cinematic technicalities, Dragon Blade is notable for its underlying socio-political message. Its depiction of Chinese culture does not simply bear historical realities or white propaganda, but it delivers an eerily diplomatic contemporary significance. It feels like it has two-fold (hopefully nothing more) mission: re-introduce Chinese culture and uplift the country’s respectability in the face of modern controversies. It is quite valiant when Chan’s Huo An states that Chinese are trained to save people and not to kill. They are peacekeepers, intent on the keeping order in the war-torn area. Such idea is comforting but current events may prove otherwise. With all the territorial disputes going on in the West Philippine Sea (or South China Sea), China keeps on building structures, much like in the movie’s city of Regum, in the pretext of establishing peace and security. As economically valuable as Silk Road, the conflict maritime area is rich in oil, minerals and other valuable resources. And then a Western villain comes with an evil desire to conquer the foreign territory. Rings a bell? Finally the Parthian Empire appears, bringing goodwill and nuggets of truth. 

Dragon Blade has a strong narrative with heavy action scenes and tear-jerking appeal. Despite its cinematic efforts, the film remains too proverbial and conventional. With its hazy subliminal message, it ends up desperate and portentous.