There’s a lot to laugh at in Daniel Lee’s faux-historical Silk Road adventure Dragon Blade, not least of which is the sight of Adrien Brody as corrupt Roman consul Tiberius wearing a tumble of raven-colored beauty-queen curls and purring in a phony British thespian’s accent. With his blue crushed-velvet cape and swinging fur piece, this Tiberius could be a 50 B.C. supervillain: Campman. Then there’s the moment John Cusack’s somber, stolid character, wearing a helmet with a whisk broom glued to the top, greets Silk Road peacekeeper Huo An (Jackie Chan) with name, rank, and serial number (almost): “I’m Lucius, Commanding General, Black Eagle Corps, Roman Empire!” Shortly thereafter, he’ll add, “And I need a place to think.”
Some of the dialogue in Dragon Blade is so outlandish you can’t believe it was written with a straight face. Maybe it wasn’t. But the picture never quite finds its tone: It’s neither go-for-broke outrageous enough to be consistently funny, nor energetic enough to be viscerally entertaining. It’s neither as bad as you might fear, nor as much fun as you might hope.
But it does, at least, strive for lavishness, especially in its action sequences. Dragon Blade opens with the usual expository title cards, explaining that the story we’re about to see — “inspired by true events” — takes place in Western China, on the Silk Road trade route. This corridor of commerce was also a link between people of differing cultures and ethnicities, and that means fighting. Chan’s Huo An is the chief of the Silk Road Protection Squad, formed to keep the route safe for all. In the opening scene, Huo An and his men thwart a battle between two grouchy armies on horseback: There’s much grand galloping and rearing in the sand, hooves flying everywhere. One veiled girl-warrior, wearing a puffy jacket and armed with a bullwhip, dismounts to square off with Huo An, whupping his ass quite literally. She may be Lady Cold Moon (Peng Lin), but boy, is she hot. In the ensuing hand-to-hand scuffle, Huo An accidentally touches her breasts. Because this is Jackie Chan, his face crinkles with embarrassment. Boobies! “I’m sorry, that wasn’t intentional,” he says, just in case it had somehow escaped our notice that this broadly staged moment was meant to be comic.
Later, the government challenges the loyalty of Huo An and his men, and they’re shipped off to rebuild a fallen city. It is there that Cusack’s eyeliner’d Lucius shows up with his men. The two leaders circle each other warily before discovering they want the same goal: Peace. Also, they’ll have to join forces against Brody’s swanning Lucius who, as part of his bid to become Big Cheese of Rome, has blinded his own little brother, a scary-angelic little moonbeam (he’s played by Jozef Waite) now under Lucius’s protection.
Stuff happens, guys fight. There’s even a rousing official Roman national anthem: “The might of enemy ships threatens us in vain!” the soldiers sing, loyalty coursing through their bodies like a kind of lust. In one particularly lively sequence, Huo An and Lucius’s soldiers show off for one another during a combat-training session: It’s a dance-off, a la Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, only with fighting.
The whole thing is sort of crazy, if not quite crazy enough. Chan is generally likable, as always, and the action scenes are well choreographed and artfully staged. Though the feats of derring-do of his younger days are gone, he’s still got plenty of life in him, even if — in this picture, at least — he radiates more businesslike efficiency than joy.
Cusack and Brody seem to be having the most fun. Their lack of embarrassment, in fact, is Dragon Blade‘s chief selling point. It’s hard to say, exactly, whom Brody is channeling: He’s a little Jimmy Page, a little Cyril Ritchard as Captain Hook. He turns the theatricality on full-blast, reveling in his character’s nastiness — because if you can’t do that in a quasi-historical Jackie Chan action epic, when can you do it? Cusack, too, makes the best of his character’s dud lines about friendship, loyalty, and the seeming impossibility of peace. In some ways, he’s just the same old Cusack we’ve always known, somber and contemplative beneath his Marvin-the-Martian helmet. But, boy, does he love flashing a big sword around. He even gets a moment of gory nobility at the end. It’s enough to make you want to pour out a libation and sing the Roman national anthem.
Written and directed by Daniel Lee
Opens September 4
Available on demand
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 1, 2015