I forgot just how much I miss Jackie Chan.
Although the Hong Kong star hasn’t stopped churning out action-comedies, his popularity in the United States has waned considerably since the days of “Rush Hour” and “Shanghai Noon.” However, he’s once more riding high with a big hit in China that, lucky for us, is arriving stateside in all of its goofy glory.
Written and directed by Daniel Lee, “Dragon Blade” is a historical epic that tells the incredible story of how a fugitive Roman soldier teamed with a disgraced Chinese soldier to defend the Silk Road trade route against power-hungry Roman tyrant Tiberius. It’s a tale that could be bone-dry stern, yet headlined by the ever-charming Chan, a perfectly cast John Cusack and a scenery-chewing Adrien Brody, it’s anything but.
Chan stars as Huo An, a man of peace who uses his incredible fighting skills to disarm instead of dismember, diffusing situations that threaten to lead to bloodshed. A grand opening action scene sets up Huo An’s pacifist brand of fighting while reintroducing audiences to the joys inherent in Chan’s distinctive martial arts choreography. At 61, he’s still lightning-fast, pulling off moves and stunts that are awe-inspiring and willfully humorous, thanks to his grade-A mugging.
The yang to Chan’s yin of lightness, hope and warmth is Cusack’s darkness, cynicism and world-weariness. The American actor’s own persona feeds well into Lucius, the Roman centurion on a suicide mission to preserve the rightful line of Roman rule. Cusack looks too old and perhaps a bit out of place in his bulky Roman armor, but he nails the emotional core of Lucius’s struggle, and proves a solid scene partner to Chan, whether they’re doing battle or sharing tales of heartbreak and regret. Their emerging friendship is an element the script rushes, but the pair’s unlikely chemistry makes it work. So when Chan proclaims with a tired grin, “You and I are the same,” we believe it, our hearts swelling with fraternal love.
Then there’s Brody.
While Cusack uses his own American accent as a Roman in 48 BC China, New Yorker Brody goes the classical route, mocking up some strange British concoction that’s jarring each time he opens his mouth, spouting confounding declarations like, “No one felt the pain more than I did when I had to blind my own brother!”
He scowls ardently, and practically spits his vicious threats, while wearing luxurious furs and a long, flowing wig. Apparently while researching his role, Brody stumbled across Cruella de Vil and just rolled with it. I’m cool with that, because with this cast, I expected some brand of bonkers. And Brody brings his fair share and then some. It’s like watching Eddie Redmayne in “Jupiter Ascending”: It’s insanely over the top but bizarrely entertaining. (So you do you, Brody.)
“Dragon Blade” refuses to be a dry, accurate historical epic, thankfully. The fight scenes are inventive and spirited, even when the budget limitations for its mounted battle sections are betrayed with awkward match cuts. The story is told at a gallop, with decadent pauses for lengthy action sequences or a sing-along that’s surprisingly moving — despite being led by an at-times-trying moppet monarch. There are countless tribes with distinctive costumes, creating an explosion of color from one act to the next. The cinematography sometimes sets its warriors in tender tableaus that play with shadow and speak to the eerie calm before battle. And then there’s a battered Lucius lashing out by spitting blood at his foe when he has no other recourse. Then there’s my favorite section, which is essentially the movie’s strange but sensational take on “You Got Served,” with Romans and Chinese warriors sparring for sport and bragging rights. It ends in a slow-mo celebration shot, because of course it does.
“Dragon Blade” is a passionate, unusual and fun film, but it’s not good. Plot points are rushed, so the narrative and its stakes are a bit perplexing. Performances are all over the place, from gritty to cartoonish. There’s a penchant for laying the drama on thick, lingering too long on gory deaths and cutting too often to unnecessary flashbacks. Plus, the poor overdubbing of some characters will likely prove jarring to American audiences, who don’t tend to see much of that in our releases. And yet, I don’t care.
Chan. Cusack. Brody. I knew what I was getting into with “Dragon Blade.” Even when it was fumbling or flawed, I was invested; I was affected and entertained. It’s a bumpy ride down the Silk Road, but one filled enough with colorful characters, exhilarating action and affable earnestness to make it worthwhile and wondrous.
“Dragon Blade” premieres today in theaters and on VOD.
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