Review: 'Dragon Blade' is awkward but strangely satisfying

Marcus Goh
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Lucius (John Cusack) battles Hoi An (Jackie Chan). (Encore Films)

Marcus Goh is a former Singapore television scriptwriter. He’s also a Transformers enthusiast and avid pop culture scholar. He tweets/Instagrams atOptimarcus and writes at marcusgohmarcusgoh.com. The views expressed are his own.

Secret ending? No.

Running time: 127 minutes (~2 hours)

“Dragon Blade” is an action movie, inspired by ostensibly historical events. It follows the adventures of Silk Road protector Hoi An and his friendship with Roman General Lucius. It stars Jackie Chan (Hoi An), John Cusack (Lucius), Adrien Brody (Tiberius), Choi Si Won (Yin Po), Mika Wang (Xiuqing), and Lin Peng (Cold Moon).

"Dragon Blade" is an interesting foray into bilingual movies - you need to truly understand both English and Mandarin to fully appreciate what’s going in the film. "Dragon Blade" does provide subtitles, but there are just too many of them at times, being both in English and Chinese. It still has its root in Asian cinema, and it remains a distinctively Chinese film throughout.

Hoi An prepares for battle. (Encore Films)

Highlights

Epic battle scene

No expense was spared in capturing sweeping shots of warring legions marching forth against each other or the armies of horse-mounted soldiers clashing against each other. The sense of scale is immense, especially in the finale, when it’s not one, but nearly ten armies clashing against each other.

Theme of harmony

Many themes run through the movie - friendship, brotherhood, and equality. But at the end of the day, all these point to the same idea, that humanity can exist in harmony as one, rather than be torn apart by the divisiveness of races or nationality. The friendship between Hoi An and Lucius is especially poignant, showing us that true harmony is borne out of the best of intentions.

Equality between the East and the West

Despite this being a Chinese movie, considerable effort is made in portraying the East and West as being even, with neither side being better than the other. Both sides have their heroes and villains, and each faction has its own strengths and flaws. Though it might make the movie meander slightly, it ultimately builds upon the message of harmony and serves to create a stronger theme in the end.

The treacherous Tiberius (Adrien Brody). (Encore Films)

Letdowns

English dialogue is clunky

The Mandarin dialogue sounds fine, but the English lines sound like they were written in Chinese and then run through Google Translate. They sound campy and artificial, with one character even calling out the villain’s “evil plan”. Yes, they actually call it his “evil plan”, rather than his “plotting and scheming” or any other number of more suitable phrases. Looks like Google Translate was the writer’s best friend for the English portions.

Publius is a shrill, irritating brat

Publius, played by Jozef Waite, comes off as a whiny, spoilt, good-for-nothing whelp. His high-pitched anthem sounds far too rehearsed to have been performed off the cuff. The only action he can pull off is impassioned crying, but his immature sobs conflict with his sacrificial plea. You spend the whole movie just hoping Publius will be put out of his misery.

Horrible voice dubs

The words don’t match the lips at times. I understand that ADR is a fact of life, but surely a better job syncing the dialogue to the action could have been done? Even emotional deliveries are hampered by the awkward audio, smashing your suspense of disbelief into jarring fragments.

Montages and flashbacks are badly edited

It’s not entirely clear when the scene suddenly jumps into a flashback scene, and then back to the present, and then into a montage of the past, and then a montage of the present. Simpler, straightforward edits are done satisfactorily, but when the director attempts something more artistic, the movie lurches into a mire of confusing cuts.

Tiberius has Hoi An on the ropes. (Encore Films)

"Dragon Blade" is a valiant attempt at blending Western and Chinese cinema together, and the integration of both cultures actually works to reinforce the theme of the movie. However, it lacks understanding of how the English language works at times, resulting in a lopsided, but strangely satisfying movie.

Should you watch this at weekend movie ticket prices? Nah.

Should you watch this at weekday movie ticket prices? Why not?

"Dragon Blade" opens in cinemas 19 February, 2015 (Thursday).