Overview: An epic adventure tale about a historical war for power in the Western Region of China during 48 B.C. between the Roman Empire and various indigenous nations. Lionsgate Premiere; 2015; Rated R; 104 minutes.
Cross-Genre Warfare: There are moments in Daniel Lee’s latest feature length film where the cast and crew come together and deliver successive scenes of well-choreographed action sequences that work well enough for the fairly limited range that Lee displays as a director of genre filmmaking. Sporadically Dragon Blade comes across well enough, with its clichéd rhetoric beating the viewer over the head with its pacifist message amid the glory of what is an ironically fantastic war movie. Unfortunately, the carnage depicted is always tied to characters that Lee wishes for his audience to care about even as he fails to provide enough reason to do so. Perhaps due to the film’s disjointed cross-section of Western and Eastern genre sensibilities, Lee’s film feels flat more often than not, with its star-studded cast unable to lend any cohesive drama to the final product’s incoherent warfare, however cinematically pleasing and aesthetically nuanced the visual aspects of Lee’s mastery behind the camera may come across as being at times.
Lost in Translation: The original cut of Lee’s film as it premiered in China was reportedly twenty minutes longer than the U.S. theatrical cut, and it shows in the film’s editing as it is available for American audiences. It’s hard to imagine that watching a cut that is any longer than what has been made available State-side would make a much of a difference, though there are fairly obvious portions of the film’s overarching narrative that feel incomplete as they are, if not completely incomprehensible and without logical precedent and progression. While the larger antagonism established between the film’s chief supporting players Jackie Chan, John Cusack, and Adrien Brody is compelling enough, there are large swaths of character nuance and narrative exposition that is entirely lost in the film’s domestic cut as distributed by Lionsgate. Wherever the fault may lie, the U.S. cut of Lee’s new film suffers significantly due to being lost in translation from Chinese to American audiences.
Historical Soap Opera: Lee’s film strives towards the sort of grand opera more appropriately applied to such historical dramas as Ridley Scott’s Gladiator or Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn, but ultimately comes up short in its capitulations to two-dimensional melodramatics throughout. It’s hard to feel bad for the film’s characters, however capably Chan, Cusack, and Brody try to bring them to life dramatically, as Lee’s script is so insufferably trite and tone deaf at each and every turn of the film’s wartime epic. It’s hard to believe that no one involved over the course of the film’s production wasn’t able to see the train wreck that film has ultimately arrived as in theaters and on home video, which makes the film’s soap opera leanings especially alienating for audiences ostensibly watching what was clearly meant to be more in line with much of the fictional heroics of Scott’s aforementioned fantasy and Herzog’s respectively sympathetic tear-jerker. Whatever Lee’s intentions might have been, Dragon Blade is a sorry exercise in another dramatic reinvention of historical events that neither honors the real life heroes and villains it depicts nor uplifts them into the realm of imaginative fairy tale as effectively as Lee at times hints towards achieving.
Overall: Despite being a visual beauty featuring compelling action-choreography sequences throughout, the production’s A-list cast can’t save the film from being one of the year’s worst films.