Dragon Blade (Tian jiang xiong shi)
China (2015) Dir. Daniel Lee
It would appear that the only person who didn’t get the memo about Jackie Chan no longer doing martial arts movies is Jackie Chan, as he is in fine sword swinging and butt kicking form in the latest historical epic from Daniel Lee, which boasts the biggest ever budget thus far for a Chinese made film.
While Lee is well versed in recreating China’s rich past on a vast scale he is also known for taking some liberties with the facts. Boasting some well meaning but confused messages about peace and goodwill, Dragon Blade (loosely influenced by true events) is set in 48 BC western China where the Silk Road Protection Squad have been tasked to prevent fights and promote peace.
After a rumour that one of the group, fronted by Captain Huo An (Jackie Chan), is corrupt, the government sends them to help rebuild the old Goose Gate fortress. A small but hardy Roman Legion appears, lead by General Lucius (John Cusack), seeking shelter and food having fled their empire with a young prince named Publius (Jozef Waite), the victim of an attempted homicide by his older brother Tiberius (Adrien Brody), a merciless tyrant who seeks absolute ruling power.
This East meets West romp marks the first time a Chinese historical film has featured Romans and while this brings a different European flavour to the proceedings and gives our Asian friends someone else to fight with other than their own kind, the story is really not that different from any other feudal epic. But don’t take that as a sign this is a bad film, Lee knows how to spin a yarn with a keen eye on the visuals.
How much of this is historically accurate will depend on your knowledge of Chinese (and Roman) history but the truth is genuine facts serve as inspiration only for this film, so no direct story is being retold. This is suggested by the bookends set in the modern day where two archaeologists (Vaness Wu and Karena Lam) search some ruins for evidence of a fabled ancient shrine as per a recently unearthed ancient manuscript of curious reputation.
We do know that the character of Huo An’s adoptive father, general Huo Qubing (Feng Shaofeng) did genuinely exist; the idea of Romans being in Ancient China is also accurate as the Silk Road was part of a famous route that connect East and West and allowed for trading between the continents to be made much easier.
Presumably relationships weren’t as hostile as they are depicted here. When we first meet Huo An and the Silk Road Protection Squad they are diffusing a potential battle between the Huns and the White Indians which they successfully achieve. When Lucius and his men show up, they arrive with a belligerent and aggressive attitude as Lucius challenges Huo to a duel with Goose Gate as the prize.
As it would happen a sandstorm interrupts the fight leading to a draw and Huo invites the Romans in where they eventually interact and the defences are lowered, sharing their own ideas and methods of construction, weaponry and fighting styles. This makes up the central part of the film and brings the pace down as the whole integration process descends into a cheesy sing-a-long dance party of sorts.
With so much backstory concerning Tiberius and his lust for glory, which includes killing his own father as well as trying to kill the partially sighted Publius for being more loved than him, this time could have been better spent building up the man who would ultimately be the main antagonist of the piece.
Granted the final act is devoted to his evil misgivings, sneaking machinations and violent campaign against his enemies, but we learn too much from brief and convenient flashbacks, giving the exposition a hurried feel. This is also true of Lucius and Publius who, despite being the catalyst for Tiberius’s villainy, very little about them is shared to gain significant sympathy from the audience.
Another issue for a multi-national production is the spoken language. Being a Chinese production the most dominant tongue is naturally Mandarin but English is the universal one used. Quite who taught Huo and his fellow countrymen English is not revealed but many speak it. We know that the Romans spoke in Latin but that clearly wasn’t achievable so English it is, with Brody sounding like British while Cusack speaks with his normal sturdy American accent.
Besides taking the lead role and being a producer of the film Jackie Chan also handled the action choreography and does a good job of it, mixing some of his bespoke comedy routines in with some brutal swordplay and multi-man punch-ups. Chan also acquits himself well on the acting front, suitably hiding the biggest flaw of his character which is someone who preaches peace but is happy to resort to violence to achieve it!
John Cusack seems to take his role quite seriously but never quiet stands out as a lead player, although he is probably a better pick than the rumoured original choice for the role of Mel Gibson! Adrian Brody spends most of his time looking sad but hams it up with Shakespearian flair once Tiberius really gets going, making for a gloriously evil SOB who needs a good kicking.
Even if the 127 minute run time could have been trimmed to lose the extraneous material, all is forgiven and forgotten due to the stunning visuals. China and Hong Kong have an uncanny magic touch when it comes to the gorgeous presentation of their historical epics and this is no different. Every scene never looks anything less than spectacular be it in the detail of the sets or the splendour of the panoramic views.
As the sum of its parts Dragon Blade is sometimes clumsy, bloated and confused but somehow manages to offer decent entertainment despite – or in spite – these cavils, while reminding us that Jackie Chan is still the man.