Of the many ridiculous elements of Dragon Blade, a Chinese epic about a 1st-century clash between Romans and Chinese factions, perhaps none is greater than the fact that John Cusack is supposed to be a Roman army’s greatest warrior. Cusack, the 49-year-old actor whose increasingly droopy face and matching comportment made him a perfect star for 2010’s Hot Tub Time Machine, is Lucius, the commander of a Roman battalion traversing the Silk Road in 48 B.C.—to see the actor attempt to affect the stature and physicality of a fearsome soldier is to witness perhaps the worst miscasting of 2015. His body slouched, his face inexpressive, his speech stilted, Cusack seems as if he’s wandered onto the wrong set, been dressed in ill-fitting battle armor and been suddenly thrust in front of the cameras to read off cue cards opposite his foreign colleagues.
Writer/director Daniel Lee’s film may hit its most off-key notes whenever Cusack is on-screen, but there’s plenty of goofiness to go around in this lavish production, awash as it is in CG sunsets, slow-motion shots of blades and arrows penetrating bodies and necks, and computer-assisted pans around the Silk Road and its surrounding desert. After a clunky prologue in which two modern-day scientists discover the ruins of an ancient Roman city built in China, the film flashes back to the first century, where it focuses on Huo An (Jackie Chan), the leader of the Protection Squad, which is tasked with maintaining peace between the thirty-six warring clans vying for control of the Silk Road. Huo An is a man who preaches non-violence, but since he’s played by Chan, he’s also a martial-arts master, and his intro scene, wherein he squares off against a beautiful adversary, is perhaps the material’s highlight, affording its headliner the opportunity to engage in the sort of combat-slapstick that made him famous decades ago.
After being framed for a crime he didn’t commit, Huo An and his compatriots are sent to the Goose Gate prison, where a surly warden tells them that they must complete construction of the local fortress in fifteen days or all be killed. Complicating matters is the arrival of Lucius and his battalion, though after a fight between Huo An and Lucius ends in a stalemate, the two become quick friends and Huo An convinces Lucius to help complete the construction work—a “twist” that’s almost as laughable as the many clichés delivered during the duo’s nighttime conversation about man’s capacity for peace, love, brutality and friendship.
Lucius is traveling with a young boy named Publius (Jozef Waite) who sings like an angel but is blind from a dastardly attack by his older brother Tiberius (Adrien Brody), who murdered his father and tried to off his sibling in order to seize the throne. For Dragon Blade’s first half, Tiberius is only seen in brief, dialogue-free slow-motion images interspersed amidst the action proper, which causes him to loom like a cartoonish villain over the proceedings. That’s more than fitting considering that, when Brody is afforded actual scenes in which to act, his hammy wickedness proves even thicker than the animal-fur coat he drapes over his shoulders. Sneering, preening and spitting venom at every turn, Brody’s Tiberius seems to have been taken less from the annals of history than from the pages of old Conan the Barbarian comics, and though his over-the-top performance brings some B-movie life to the otherwise overwrought story, he’s ultimately relegated to simply throwing lame insults at Lucius and Huo An, and then trying to stab them.
Chan, meanwhile, is given a number of opportunities to show off his still-impressive athleticism. However, his character’s mouth is stuffed full of so many earnest platitudes that he becomes an insufferable goody-two-shoes center of attention. Championing cross-cultural unity in both lengthy speeches and, in one instance, a creaky song, his Huo An embodies the film’s efforts to blend East and West in terms of history and cinematic style. Alas, Dragon Blade executes that marriage with such uniformly dismal awkwardness that, Brody’s hilarious dialed-to-eleven turn notwithstanding, it turns out to be one of the year’s most obvious failures, no matter what country claims it as its own.
Director: Daniel Lee
Writer: Daniel Lee
Starring: Jackie Chan, John Cusack, Adrien Brody, Lin Peng, Mika Wang, Choi Siwon, Xiao Yang, Jozef Waite
Release Date: September 4, 2015