Dragon Blade AKA Tian Jiang Xiong Shi [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Lions Gate Home Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (8th January 2016).
The Film

During the Han Dynasty, the Silk Road Protection Squad was deployed to maintain peace between the thirty-six nations engaged in trade. Captain Huo An (Rumble in the Bronx's Jackie Chan), adopted son of the late General Huo Qubing (White Vengeance's Shaofeng Feng), takes this literally, refusing to fight until he must defend himself. When four cases of gold coins are discovered with a clearance document signed by the Silk Road Protection Squad, Huo An and his men are charged with smuggling and sent to the Wild Geese Gate and the virtual life sentence of rebuilding the razed city. Their attempts to maintain peace and foster friendship between inmates from the thirty six nations are unappreciated until Roman General Lucius (Love & Mercy's John Cusack) and his eight-hundred men, starving and in need of medical attention for ailing aristocratic child Publius (Jozef Waite) attempt to overtake the city. Huo An unites the inmates in defense but then attempts to befriend Lucius are violently rebuffed. Despite their differing fighting styles, they are evenly matched; but a coming sandstorm endangers both sides and Lucius relents when Huo An offers them shelter, food, and medicine. Huo An learns from Lucius that he and his army defected from the Roman Empire with young Publius who was blinded by medicine laced with poison by his older brother General Tiberius (American Heist's Adrien Brody) when their father planned to appoint the younger sibling to succeed him as Consul. When Huo An's second Yin Po (singer Si Won Choi) delivers the news that the Chief Prefecture has ordered them to finish rebuilding the city within fifteen days or all of the prisoners will be executed, Lucius and his men return their hospitality by helping them speed up the construction using Roman building techniques in exchange for guides to take a scout to the Parthian Empire to restore the peace treaty drawn up by Lord Crassus and the Parthian Queen (Lorie Pester), sister of the Lady Crassus (You're Next's Sharni Vinson), and to prove Tiberius' evil intentions. The massive undertaking not only forges the friendship between the Romans and their hosts but also a unity between the thirty six nations. When Lucius learns that Tiberius and the Roman army have intercepted the scouts sent to the Parthian Empire, he is unwilling to allow his new allies to be slaughtered beside them; however, Huo An suspects that the Chief Prefecture is working with Tiberius and had framed the Silk Road Protection Squad. Huo An arrives home just in time to rescue his wife Xin Qing (Mika Wang) who teaches children from all of the tribes from execution when he is branded a traitor for helping Lucius. The timely assistance of Hun warrior Lady Cold Moon (Little Big Soldier's Peng Lin) who also regards herself as Huo An's wife after his "fated" defeat of her in the opening sequence aides his escape but Xin Qing is killed trying to shield one of her students from arrows. While Huo An is mourning his wife, one of his trusted comrades betrays him and Lucius, Publius, and his men are captured. Tiberius reveals to Lucius that coming after him and Publius gave him an excuse to bring his men to the area with the purpose of taking the Silk Road for the Roman Empire. When Huo An returns he discovers that all thirty six nations have been coerced into swearing alliances with Tiberius and have agreed to hand him over to the Roman Empire. Driven by grief and his concern for his allies, Huo An must convince the thirty six nations to band together and fight for their freedom.
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Written and directed by Daniel Lee (Black Mask), the $65 million dollar epic Dragon Blade sports gorgeous costumes, massive sets, sprawling battle sequences (staged by Chan himself), and Gladiator/ Hans Zimmer-esque score by Henry Lai (Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon). The story touches upon a little-explored historical period and setting, but the script and production are more interested in the accuracy of the costumes, sets, and weapons than delineating the historical details more clearly or developing relationships beyond the template. All of the females including the hero's beloved wife and the potentially interesting Cold Moon are ciphers and the sense of brotherhood between Huo An and Lucius and their men is conveyed more by the stirring music score than the script. Chan's broken English (a somewhat appropriate substitution possibly to broken Latin when communicating with the Roman characters even though the thirty-six nations all seem to understand and speak in Mandarin) is kept to a minimum, but it is difficult for him to invest his English dialogue with the same weight as the Mandarin lines. The usually fine Cusack in a role rumored to have been offered to Mel Gibson is badly miscast, as is Brody who is visually striking as Tiberius until he starts speaking with a wavering British accent. Chan may not be quite the box office draw he was last decade (in a mix of HK films that he made a decade or two before and less entertaining but box office-pleasing American vehicles), but he surely could have headlined this without the name value of Brody and Cusack and actually got to play his major fight scenes against actors perhaps held in lesser esteem but seasoned in stunt work and swordplay. The overreliance on cutting and sudden changes in framerate during the fight scenes may be as much a concession to using actors with no stunt training or Chan's age (although he still seems limber and energetic). Chan's first fight scene with Lin's Hun warrior culminating in him accidentally cupping both of her breasts at first suggests a certain light-hearted tone familiar from his earlier works (including some of the more ambitious period films), but the rest of the film is played seriously when it could actually have used a handful of lighter moments (perhaps some of these were part of the twenty-odd minutes pruned from the international cut seen here). Most of the laughs that are present are unintentional, from some poorly post-dubbed English-language background performers to the Publius' wailing which should tug at the heartstrings but just grates on the ears. While the film strives for significance, it ultimately ends up being an entertaining and exciting if imperfect popcorn movie, although it seems to have done well enough in China even if its limited release stateside yielded less impressive box office numbers. It's not quite as fun as the Jackie Chan we are used to domestically, but fans of Tsui Hark's recent return vehicle The Taking of Tiger Mountain may enjoy this slicker example of the Chinese historical war epic.
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Video

LionsGate's dual-layered 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.40:1 widescreen transfer features an excellent transfer of the film's international cut (which runs roughly twenty minutes shorter than the Chinese cut). Detail is strong in the live action shots, giving viewers an appreciation of the amount of effort that went into the costume and production design from hairstyles, furs, weaponry, and the Wild Geese sets. Some digital matte paintings of the desert look less detailed, seemingly the result of the animation rather than any efforts to soften their "digital-ness" (although it may be deliberate in the case of some overhead angles that resemble animated versions of the Silk Road maps).
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Audio

The sole audio option is a Mandarin/English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that impresses far more with the vivid surround and directional effects and its rendition of the music score. The dialogue track is technically fine but both the live performances and the post-dubbed English ones stick out badly. Optional English, English SDH, and Spanish subtitles are available.
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Extras

The behind the scenes featurette (21:28) in which Chan describes it as a "very masculine film", Lee discusses the historical background and the research that went into it (including his own attempts in the preceding seven to eight years to write his own script before Chan approached him with the concept), while the actors provide the usual remarks about how excited they were when they read the script. Lee also remarks upon the Roman features in the surviving architecture and in the locals of Han Chinese ancestry, and Chan also fortunately offers a better explanation of the film's backstory than may be evident in the finished film (or at least in this international edit).
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Music videos have also been included for "Song of Peace" (3:14) - with Chan sounding more autotuned than in the feature version - and "Please Tell the Wind to Bring My Father Home" (4:10) heard during the end credits. The extended interviews with cast/crew (56:13) are the source of the talking head remarks during the making-of, but they are actually a series of short "soundbytes" (as they are labeled in English and Chinese) rather than full interviews. Lee does go into a bit more detail about the historical research and characterization while Chan concedes his expertise as well as the license they took with some of the details where history is sketchy. Chan also discusses the themes of the film and their importance in Chinese society. Brody, Cusack, and Peng Lin do not have that much more to say than in the extracts in the featurette, but the other actors are asked to reflect on the themes and their motivations and the section also includes more remarks from the film's art director, cinematographer, and visual effects producer. The disc closes out with the film's trailer (2:02).

Overall

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The Film: C+ Video: A Audio: A Extras: C+ Overall: B

 


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