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Beyond its fantastic premise of a Hun-Chinese fighter befriending a Roman warrior in English in Central Asia in 48 BC, Daniel Lee’s Dragon Blade is perhaps one of the more measured Jackie Chan blockbusters to have emerged in recent years. While the star’s acrobatic action sequences remain eye-catching as ever, the film’s narrative also positions Chan in between his wildly swinging registers of po-faced drama (Shinjuku Incident or The Karate Kid) and passé cops-and-robbers comedy (the Rush Hour films, Chinese Zodiac).
Lee (14 Blades, White Vengeance) and his mostly Hong Kong-originated crew have helped prevent Chan (who is also producer and action director here) from falling back on convenient caricatures of himself and his slap-happy shtick. Exerting significant control over the film – from a screenplay filled with modern resonance to very effective production design – Lee just barely manages to overcome the jarring problem posed by its (mugging) American cast.
Having set China’s box office ablaze over the Lunar New Year holidays – with its takings at US$72.2 million as the week-long festivities, which began on Feb. 19, draw to a close – Dragon Blade should play well with action-film genre enthusiasts and the still-prevalent pockets of Chan fans worldwide. With Nicolas Cage having set a very bad recent precedent with his catastrophic Crusader-in-China car-crash Outcast, however, international distributors might think twice before playing up the film’s Hollywood presence.
In the film, Cusack plays Lucius, a Roman general fleeing eastwards to protect his young ward, Publius (British-Chinese child star Jozef Waite), from falling victim to a coup at home. Standing between him and China is the Yanmen Gate, a Wild West-like border outpost where Huo An (Chan) and his troupe of peacekeepers (translated as “Silk Road Protection Squad” in English subtitles) have been sent on forced-labor exile after being framed for a gold smuggling scam.
Noting the physical frailty of Lucius’ troops, Huo elects to open the gates to the invaders – an invitation which leads to feel-good friendships, not just between Lucius and Huo, but also the myriad ethnic minorities working within the city and across the region. It’s a united stand that comes in handy when the tyrant finally arrives, attempting a geopolitical power-grab that reaches far beyond the throne in Rome.
The film, according to on-screen text, is “inspired by true events.” Lee might be pointing to the documented westward travels of Han Dynasty emissary Ban Chao. But one can sense the Canadian-educated Lee reflecting on more contemporary and international concerns than ancient Chinese history; his villains’ pronounced master plan is to invade and occupy a resource-heavy foreign land under the pretext of pursuing a fugitive. In addition, there’s the presence of the Parthian Empire – the historical precursor to Persia and then Iran – as a force of good, a rebuke of the cultural representations found in the 300 films, for example.
Somehow, all these statements are made without the film falling into the jingoism which Chan himself is prone to these days. Given the context of a national cinema slipping fast toward high-budget, low-quality sensationalism, Lee and his team have scored a small victory within the constraints imposed on them by their star’s power, as well as the censorship and public tastes of mainland China.
Opens: Feb. 19 (China)
Production companies: A Visualizer production in collaboration with Fable House, in a presentation by Sparkle Roll Media, Huayi Brothers, Shanghai Film Group
Director: Daniel Lee
Screenwriter: Daniel Lee
Producers: Jackie Chan, Susanna Tsang
Executive producers: Jackie Chan, Wang Zhongjin, Ren Zhonglun, Zhou Moufei
Director of photography: Tony Cheung
Art directors: Daniel Lee, Thomas Chong
Costume designer: Thomas Chong
Editor: Yau Chi-wai
Casting: Zheng Caijing
Music: Alvin Lai
International Sales: Golden Network Asia
In Mandarin and English
No rating; 127 minutes
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