Reviewed by The Foywonder
Starring Jason Behr, Amanda Brooks, Robert Forster, Chris Robinson, Michael Shamus Wiles, John Ales, Chris Mulkey, Elizabeth Pena, Geoffrey Pierson
Directed by Hyung-rae Shim
Distributed by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Have you ever seen Godzilla vs. Gigan? That Godzilla flick from the 1970’s had to do with Japanese hippies and a manga artist uncovering an insidious plot by extraterrestrial cockroaches disguised as businessmen building an amusement park as a cover for their world domination scheme, the center of which was a giant tower built to look like Godzilla that could fire laser beams from its teeth. The real Godzilla and his spikey quadruped sidekick Anguirus are forced to tag team wrestle on behalf of mankind against the alien invader’s demonic duo of Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster and a new creature named Gigan that looked like a cyclopean cyborg-chicken-thingamajig with giant hooks for hands and a buzzsaw built into its belly. The alien roaches have even built a devise that allows them to translate Godzilla and Aguirus’ roars into English so that they know what they’re saying when they communicate with one another.
The plot to that film was more lucid than that of Dragon Wars.
Six years and (supposedly) $70 million in the making, a South Korean production set almost entirely in the United States, filmed primarily in English, and starring primarily American actors: Dragon Wars (or D-War for short) is the brain fart of Hyung-rae Shim (which I understand is Korean for “I Can’t Believe It’s Not An Uwe Boll Movie”), a famous comedian in his native country turned monster moviemaker. His last attempt at directing was a remake of the 1960’s Korean Godzilla knock-off Yonggary. That film (known as Reptilian in the US) could best be described as 15 minutes of genuinely entertaining monster mayhem trapped inside of a dreadful 90-minute dud of a movie. Some could argue that history has repeated itself with Dragon Wars. But when the monster action kicks in, boy does it ever!
Dragon Wars contains what may very well be my favorite shot of any scene in any movie I saw all of last year: a long view, wide angle, overhead shot of this giant snake monster slithering at high speed down a jammed up city street knocking the hell out of every bit of traffic in its way. Though it isn’t nearly as epic on a smaller screen, that one moment captured my imagination in ways that nothing I saw in any of last summer’s blockbusters did. Those few seconds did more to capture the spirit of a daikaiju movie than anything Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin did with their name-only Godzilla back in ‘98
In fact, the whole monsters attack Los Angeles sequence of Dragon Wars pretty much pounds home how much Devlin and Emmerich failed to deliver on what people go to see giant monster movies for. You got the giant dragon snake wreaking havoc, a swarm of smaller flying dragons battling Blackhawk helicopters, and a whole army of Masters of the Universe escapees leading their monstrous horde into battle with the military. It’s great stuff if you dig on old school giant monster movies. Personally, I’ll take this all-out monster assault on the streets of Los Angeles over similar such scenes in Transformers any day of the week, especially since it doesn’t go on forever and I could actually comprehend the action going on here.
If you roll your eyes at the CGI work in Dragon Wars, then you’ve clearly been spoiled by the mega blockbusters to the point that now nothing but the most expensive and state-of-the-art computer effects work is going to satisfy you, and that’s just sad. Though definitely inconsistent at times, this is far from terrible computer effects work and certainly better than that seen in certain other films that came out last year I could name.
Now as bad as Dragon Wars often is – and it most definitely is a bad movie – it still has an enthusiasm about it that’s inescapable. Well, maybe not enthusiasm on the part of the uniformly lifeless actors, but definitely enthusiasm on the part of the filmmaker. Misguided yet inspired. Mr. Shim’s enthusiasm clearly overrides his common sense, at least when it came to the film’s screenplay, one of the absolute worst in recent memory.
Look; when your movie opens with a voiceover narration explaining the mythology behind the story, features a lengthy flashback sequence just minutes afterwards that further details the mythology, and then spends the rest of the movie occasionally bringing up the specifics of the mythology, and yet when it’s all said in done you’re still confused you know a screenplay has serious problems. Another surefire sign is that that screenplay is rubbish: when you’re less than 15-minutes in and you’ve already had an extended flashback sequence that contains its own extended flashback sequence, two full blown attempts to explain the mythological backstory, and three separate voiceover narrations. That’s got to be some sort of a record.
Five hundred years ago in Korea a girl was born with a dragon birthmark on her shoulder indicating her to be the one who will give her supernatural “Yuh Yi Joo” to a good Imoogi (a snake-like larva stage before becoming a full blown Asian dragon, apparently) when she turns 20 so that it can transform into a dragon god and ascend to heaven. A stereotypically old kung fu master type is sworn to protect her with assistence from his young apprentice who grows up to fall in love with the girl. One the even of her 20th birthday, a Sauron wannabe shows up leading the Gungan army on an all-out assault on her village; boy and girl decide to Romeo & Juliet themselves by jumping off a cliff rather than let the evil Imoogi named Baraki get the Yuh Yi Joo which would give it the power to conquer the world.
Did you get all that? No? Good.
Baraki has a private army called the Atrox army consisting of armored soldiers straight out of a D&D sourcebook and a load of dinosaur-like creatures used as weaponry. Daudlers are these humongous four-legged dino critters with rocket launchers strapped to their backs. Bulcos are these fireball-spitting, flying dragon/raptor creatures. And just to round things out a bit, it would appear that the Atrox army paid a visit to Tatooine to round-up a few of those creatures Imperial stormtroopers rode around on in the original Star Wars, minus the horns. To see all these monsters and the sea of soldiers marching on this small village, I think the Greeks brought fewer warriors to sack Troy. Later on they’ll wage war on modern day Los Angeles against our modern military.
The film will then flash back forward to present day LA where Jason Behr is a TV reporter and the reincarnation of that young man who again finds himself looking for his reincarnated love, now a young woman named Sarah with a “birthmark” that looks an awful lot like a dragon tattoo. He’s once again destined to protect her with the help of Robert Forster, who we’re actually supposed to believe is the reincarnated kung fu master Behr’s past life self apprenticed under. Also in pursuit of Sarah and the metaphysical dragonball she possesses are the monstrous Baraki, the entire Atrox army, and the unnamed Atrox general, who without his helmet on now looks like the lovechild of Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Moll and speaks only Korean in a demonic voice that makes him sound like he should be the frontman for a Korean death metal band.
Many questions arise from what transpires, not the least of which is how come the Atrox general can walk through walls yet still get run down by a speeding station wagon, and why do our two lead lovebirds keep abandoning their friends during life and death situations. Behr leaves behind his token black friend seemingly to get killed on more than one occasion. What a hero!
Here are a few more questions that will probably cross your mind as you watch Dragon Wars:
It’s impossible to watch this movie and not get the sense that there are massive chunks of the story missing; important stuff too, like character development, explanations, scenes that should probably be bridging gaps between other scenes, and so on. I even noticed a couple scenes that felt like they might have been out of order. Then again, we all may be better off without Dragon Wars clocking in at more than a compact 80+ minutes. With it D-War could have ended up being just another bloated geek epic, and aren’t we all about sick of drawn out popcorn flicks that insist upon overstaying their welcome?
And if you think the screenplay is bad, then get a load of the acting. Jason Behr gives what may very well be the worst performance of his, or anyone else’s, career. Bored intensity: that’s the only way I can describe his acting style, although every now and then he’s required to make a facial expression that I’d describe as bored amazement. Even Oscar nominated film vet Robert Forster gives what may be the worst performance of his career, almost as if he saw Ben Kingsley in Bloodrayne and said to himself, “You call that a lifeless performance? I’ll show you lifeless.” The less said about the rest of the cast the better.
But when it’s all said and done, for all the criticism that Dragon Wars has coming its way – much of it well earned – this is a motion picture that doesn’t have a single cynical bone in its body. It doesn’t feel like a movie that’s been distilled through the typical Hollywood wringer; it doesn’t feel like something that’s been rewritten by multiple script doctors (though in this case maybe it should have) or had a crack studio marketing team going through the whole production with a fine tooth comb to make sure everything about it would appeal to all the proper demographics. Dragon Wars may ultimately have turned out a really bad movie with some genuinely fun moments but it’s still a really bad movie that feels like it was made by an actual human being who was genuinely trying to make a movie worth giving a damn about rather than just another cynical Hollywood production that’s been crafted by a committee with multiple agendas. I’d much rather watch D-War again, warts and all, than ever sit through any of the heartless, mechanical, summer blockbusters churned out by the Hollywood machine this past summer.
In terms of extras, the Imoogis shall not be pleased! All we get is a short featurette, some animatics, and an art gallery. At the very least they could have contacted me to do a commentary!
So to sum it up, if you watch Dragon Wars and think it’s absolute garbage with zero redeeming values, filmmaking at is crappiest, I really can’t argue with you. If you are like me and found the film to be a whole lot of fun as both a throwback to the Japanese monster movies of old and as a valentine to fans of really schlocky, MST3K-worthy films, then you would also be correct. It is indeed both – a modern-day Godzilla vs. Gigan; a film worthy of ridicule, scorn, and unconditional love. It all depends on how you look at it.
3 1/2 out of 5
— OR —
1/2 out of 5
2 out of 5
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