Slimmed down ‘Dragon Blade’ is an uneven take Roman meets Chinese

Don’t be misled by the trailers for Jackie Chan’s latest movie, “Dragon Blade.” My editor at the Pasadena Weekly tells me the trailers are all in English. There is English, but also when the Chinese are amongst themselves they do speak Chinese. Adrien Brody and John Cusack speak English even though they are supposedly Romans. This is a tale about the Romans on one of the fabled silk routes. “Dragon Blade” opens today, Sept. 4, at the Laemmle Playhouse 7 and online.

Most people don’t go to Jackie Chan movies for great emoting and strong, nuanced story lines. The martial art moves are won an award for Chan earlier this year (the movie was released in Asia beginning in February). There are also a few laughs along the way, some of which were not unintentional, but there’s also enough gore  or  “bloody violence” to justifies is R rating.

Yet the unlike the Keanu Reeves version of  “47 Ronin”  or the convoluted reasoning behind Benedict Cumberbatch playing Khan in the “Star Trek” reboot, “Dragon Blade” has a reasonable explanation for Caucasians being in this movie: Ancient Rome didn’t have GPS tracking and some of its legions on far flung missions got lost.

One lost legion was famous enough for a  BBC special (Roman Ninth Legion). They supposedly end up Britain but nothing is sure. Recent DNA studies suggest that some Roman soldiers left behind biological evidence after the clash between the Roman general Marcus Crassus and the Parthians in what is now Iran. If that was the Ninth, then they needed a better navigator. According to historical records, Crassus died along with many of his soldiers, but some soldiers escaped. Those remaining soldiers might have joined the war between the Huns and Chinese in 36BC. The survivors then settled in Western China. In one study the DNA testing of one village in northwestern China was over 50 percent Caucasian in origin and it shows in the blue or green eyes and fair hair of some villagers.

In “Dragon Blade,” Jackie Chan plays Huo An, the leader of elite warriors who protect the inland silk route. Due to treachery, he and his squad are banished to the derelict post Wild Geese Gate near the Gobi Desert. He leaves behind his very young wife, but not before another love interest is introduced. Don’t worry. The romantic thread is not strong. This is first and foremost a male-bonding, battle movie.

On the other side, Roman General Lucius (Cusack) has fled to protect Publius (Jozef Waite), the youngest son of a Roman consul. Publius is a child, his much older adult brother Tiberius (Brody) wants to murder him. Although starving and thirsty, Lucius’  lost legion challenges the forces at Wild Geese Gate until a sandstorm threatens the two forces. Lucius and his men accept Huo An’s offer to come inside the city gates and be friends instead of foes.  Lucius and his men help Huo An and the city dwellers fix the walls using Roman technology and that might make some sense if they weren’t in a desert.

Evil has better tracking impulses than GPS and Tiberius finds both Lucius and Publius. Tiberius tortures Lucius and this part of plenty gory.  In the end, Huo An tries to unite tribes from different nations to prevent the onslaught of the conquering Romans and a woman will decide the final fate of this outpost of the silk route.

Written and directed by Daniel Lee, “Dragon Blade” works best as an action movie, and gets bogged down when it becomes to epic–this is not Oedipus Rex.  Lee doesn’t handle the  dramatic and emotional tension well enough and Brody’s evil Tiberius is too two-dimensional.

Variety’s reviewer called the outpost Wild Goose Gate, but that’s a minor quibble. The U.S. official production notes gives us “Wild Geese Gate” and Chinese doesn’t use plurals in the same manner as English. The version seen by Maggie Lee, Chief Asia Film critic for Variety, was also 126 minutes. The version reviewed and released in the U.S. is only 103 minutes long. There’s been some editing done for the American market.

Although the tone is thus uneven, “Dragon Blade” features wonderful costumes, comparative fighting styles and swords to admire. Adrien Brody won a Best Supporting Actor Huading Award and Jackie Chan won a Best Action Choreography Huading Award. The movie is in Chinese with English subtitles and English.

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