Tom Staggs

Bad-mutha Korean serpents trash downtown L.A. in English-language monsterfest "D-War," a feast of A-grade f/x married to a Z-grade, irony-free script. After some eight years in planning, production and post, and just over two years since live-action shooting wrapped, South Korea's biggest-budget production by far looks likely to end up the most expensive cult movie on DVD.

Bad-mutha Korean serpents trash downtown L.A. in Eng-lish-language monsterfest “D-War,” a feast of A-grade f/x married to a Z-grade, irony-free script. After some eight years in planning, production and post, and just over two years since live-action shooting wrapped, South Korea’s biggest-budget production by far (reportedly $70 million) looks likely to end up the most expensive cult movie on DVD. Though often visually entertaining, and supe-rior to helmer Shim Hyeung-rae’s last monster outing (1999’s “Yonggary,” aka “Reptilian”), pic looks to have an uphill fight in the hardtop arena.

Much-delayed movie is now looking at a July local release, maybe in a version different from that unspooled in the Berlin mar-ket. A U.S. distrib, said to be vital to pic’s international release strat-egy, had yet to be announced as of early February.

Writer-director Shim did all the visual effects via his own studio, Younggu Art, set up after the debacle of “Yonggary.” Judging by some of the footage sneaked over the years, the CGI has been reworked several times, to a present level that is perfectly acceptable (and frequently in-your-face impressive) for a pure genre movie.

Judging by some of the crater-like plot lacunae, pic has also been cut to the bone, making “D-War” at least an unabashed thrill ride once the vfx really kick in.

Early reels, criss-crossing be-tween contempo L.A. and Korea’s Chosun Dynasty some 500 years ago, contain a lot of over-detailed exposition. Most is put in the mouth of antiques dealer Jack (vet Robert Forster) when young kid Ethan Kendrick (Cody Arens) is exposed to something radiating from an old Korean chest in his shop.

Jack explains (via flashbacks) that Ethan has been impregnated with the spirit of an ancient war-rior apprentice who once saved his beloved from the massive army of Buraki, a bad Imoogi (serpents who want to morph into dragons). Jack gives the kid a powerful pendant and tells him to seek out the modern equivalent of the apprentice’s beloved, recognizable by a red-dragon tattoo on her shoulder.

When that young woman reaches 20, says Jack, the pair will have the power to reincarnate Imoogi as dragons. And after half a millennium, Buraki is due to have another try at harnessing that power.

Cut to Ethan as an adult TV news reporter (Jason Behr), at a time when L.A. has been shaken by a mysterious quake — a signal for Buraki’s return. Through a series of unlikely coincidences, Ethan meets Sarah (Amanda Brooks), who received the spirit of the apprentice’s beloved at birth and is now feeling distinctly queasy.

At the 55-minute mark, pic turns into a full-fledged f/x ex-travaganza-cum-chase movie, as the ornery, 600-foot-long Buraki hunts the pair down in the streets of downtown L.A. and up the sides of its buildings, laying waste to most of the area. Dialogue is either strictly functional or Sarah exclaiming, “None of this makes sense!” Perfs are equally func-tional.

It’s strange that Shim, a former comic actor, didn’t seize the chance to make a more ironic movie — maybe one playing off Korean-U.S. relations (a la “The Host”) or simply one with more wit. Instead, “D-War” seems concerned only with cracking the U.S. and international market on a tech level, with the characters and their development an afterthought.

Serpents, dragons and assorted monsters (especially a sloth-like creature loaded with revolving cannons) are well imagined — as are Buraki’s foot soldiers — though with nods in the direction of “Star Wars” and “The Lord of the Rings.” Score by Steve Jablonsky is uninspired, other tech credits OK.

Dragon Wars

South Korea

Production

A Showbox/Mediaplex release of a Showbox presentation of a Younggu Art production. (International sales: Showbox, Seoul.) Produced by Choi Sung-ho, James B. Kang, Jeong Tae-sung. Executive producers, Kim Woo-taek, Shim Hyung-rae. Directed, written by Shim Hyeung-rae.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Hubert Taczanowski; editor, Tim Alverson; music, Steve Jablonsky; production designers, Kim Yong-suk, Shim Jong-nam; art directors, Pamela Warner; costume designer, Niklas J. Palm; sound (Dolby Digital), Tom Curley; sound designer, Mark Mangini; visual effects, Younggu Art Studios; visual effects supervisor, Shim Ki-wook; stunt coordinators, Bud Davis, Dennis Scott; assistant director, Jonathan Southard (L.A.), Kim Min-soo (South Korea); casting, Christine Sheaks. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (market), Feb. 8, 2007. Running time: 100 MIN.

With

Jason Behr, Amanda Brooks, Robert Forster, Craig Robinson, Elizabeth Pena, Chris Mulkey, Aimee Garcia, John Ales, Cody Arens. (English, Korean dialogue)

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