Jackie Chan can’t fight against pitiful performances

Jackie Chan highlights this Chinese historical drama which is rapidly sabotaged by American co-stars Adrien Brody and John Cusack. They’re insufferable.

Not that Dragon Blade is a towering achievement elsewhere. It’s a schmaltzy story of what people can do if they band together instead of fight, a 2000-year old anti-war message brought into the hands of contemporary filmmakers.

Arriving in the US, Dragon Blade has 15 minutes severed from its original length. A mercy killing, probably, if those scenes are of Cusack and Brody. The English-speaking pair serve as feuding Roman generals stepping into Chinese territory, neither of them with the brutish presence needed to sell their roles. Stilted dialog delivery only punishes their situation further.

Chan himself is fine – and still a martial arts titan. Pushing past 60, his eye for fight choreography remains bright even if his capacity to brawl has diminished. Dazzling sword encounters and well scaled war tiffs are enjoyable, albeit pitchy in tone. Chan cannot decide whether he’s playful or furious, lurching action forward with deadened humor designed to weaken the severity of bloodshed. His usual perkiness is intrusive.

Daniel Lee directs, his fourth consecutive historical drama and third film with “Dragon” in the title. Blame the US marketing for the latter. Still, they’re better titled than Lee’s prior White Vengeance which out of context sounds like KKK propaganda drivel.

Dragon Blade’s scale and flow both feel neutered, presented in disconnected chunks.

Dragon Blade runs through its narrative – obviously truncated. Scenes cut off when they shouldn’t. Exposition is poor. Flashbacks are egregious. Certain scenes are just stumps. Choppy storytelling does match the pitiful performances of its named cast, if nothing else.

Maybe the directorial translation was botched, leaving Cusack and Brody as outliers fending for themselves. Or, that’s an excuse as to not blemish their careers. Their intertwined character relationship is a dud, explained with a fleeting backstory suffocated between chunky bouts of slow motion cinematography and bunched together flashbacks. English speaking bit parts are worse still. Dragon Blade’s scale and flow both feel neutered, presented in disconnected chunks. Character progression is left in a disarray.

There is a grand attempt to impress. Most of Dragon Blade is engulfed by picturesque fantasy. The movie is extended with lavish CG deserts, CG cities, CG armies; each adds to the sizable production value. It’s a fine sizzle reel. Effects of this caliber are out of character for a majority of imports. Dragon Blade’s depiction of 50BC is textured and clean, a stand out in a flop which never finds comfortable footing.

Movie ★★☆☆☆ 

Dragon Blade Blu-ray screen shot 1

On US Blu-ray, Dragon Blade’s 3D version is ignored despite choreography aiming for the 3D camera. Importing is the only option for 3D aficionados. In 2D, Dragon Blade is a passable presentation, digitally sourced with a haze of noise. Lionsgate produces a transfer capable enough to hold the artifacts back.

Color is of limited concern. The desert setting laces most of the scenery with an amber hue. Outside of the blue or red uniform decorations for the Romans, Dragon Blade appears singularly focused. Night sequences are blasted with deep blues, a relief from the rest.

Of concern is fidelity which varies wildly between scenes. Digital cinematography may be clear, yet the mid-range shots falter into a murky quality. Further, faces can appear unusually processed or smeared, a heavy variation from the extensive high-frequency detail in close. Costumes here are of a high craftsmanship. That detail shows. Armor features intricate metal work and other such features. Cloth is well rendered too.

For tonality, contrast weighs heavily as the sun sits on the horizon line. It’s as if the Earth never rotates. Blooming is employed to accentuate brightness. Black levels fail to carry the same oomph, but perform to par.

Video ★★★★☆ 

Problems douse the DTS-HD track contained on this disc, wavering from poor recording quality in certain dialog exchanges to overzealous rear channels. Muffled dialog is unlikely to be attributed to the mixing itself; that’s a fault of the on-set work. However, this is a frequent issue, in particular as characters exit the city to discuss their options for war (or non-war).

Amplification of the rear speakers is an unfortunate tactic. The score, at times, sounds as if it’s located only in the two surrounds. Those channels are given excessive activity. While battle scenes manage to handle clanging swords or air rushing between speakers admirably, other effects lack the same control. An assault by eagles in the third act finishes any hope for natural motion, the bird calls piercing the back of the soundfield before disappearing into the stereos lightly.

Only a smidgen of LFE support is offered, adding density to battlefields as horses march. Some collapsing structures add force too. Those moments are brief.

Audio ★★☆☆☆ 

A 21-minute behind-the-scenes featurette covers the full production from the research stage up to post. Interviews are plentiful. Extended interviews are offered – just shy of an hour – which appears to the pool of content available to editors for the featurette. Two music videos are the final pieces of the disc.

Extras ★★☆☆☆ 

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Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.