Director: Daniel Lee
Stars: Jackie Chan, John Cusack
2 (out of 5) Globes
Jackie Chan mugs up a storm in the opening fight of “Dragon Blade,” as well he should. Broad comedy and martial arts have been forever intertwined in Chan’s films, which marry the physicality of action with the physicality of slapstick comedy. It’s almost a relief that he whips out exaggerated gasps and even bigger mock-smiles, not only because he’s 61 and still (for the most part, minus the only truly death-defying stunts) going, but because “Dragon Blade” is not what constitutes a classic Chan outing. It’s a mega-budgeted historical epic, whose elephantine budget exists in part because it includes two Western stars in its midst: John Cusack (out of place but trying) and Adrien Brody (in place because he can ham but good).
“Dragon Blade” isn’t an ideal Chan vehicle but, on the other hand, it gains a lot from his ecstatic presence. It’s a film forever mixing the big (and hideous — there are muddy CGI vitas and color-correcting botches aplenty) with the intimate, which is to say camerawork and editing that compliments Chan’s whipsmart moves. It even starts out well, whipping out a David and Goliath tale that favors the underdogs and, for a time, snaky, unpredictable plotting. Chan plays Huo An, a lowly patrol commander during the Han Dynasty who is framed and banished to hard labor at a remote fortress. There he runs afoul of a legion of Roman soldiers led by Cusack’s Lucius. At first they fight. (Quick editing obscures both actors’ very different physical limitations, though it does it with relative finesse.) Then they bond, in part because Lucius too is disgraced, having been forced on the run by the dastardly doings of Brody’s lip-smackingly evil consul Tiberius, who’s bound to come a-calling.
Some 25 minutes have been gouged for the American version from the original cut, and it shows. A prologue has been entirely wiped, replaced by a token for-the-foreigners text bomb, plus sudden plot-condensing montages that crop up with alarming regularity. The bromance between Huo An and Lucius seems to mostly remain, and it’s refreshing to see Chan develop a rapport with an American star that’s relaxed, touching and not based on broad yuk-making. It’s still an uphill battle. The first half is zippy and funny, allowing Chan to do what he does best. The second turns heavy and tragic, stranding Chan in scenes calling for sad-eyed staring but few opportunities to smackdown. It becomes a lumbering tale beholden to its budget, wasting not only Chan but director Daniel Lee, whose “Black Mask” had the crackerjack zeal “Dragon Blade” gets around to but infrequently. By the end only Brody is well-used, vamping around in capes and indulging in a British accent that recalls the likes of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing as they camped up untold examples of trash. It’s all fun enough that you wish it had ditched the budget and gotten dirty.