A sumptuously realized war epic about Romans getting embroiled in Chinese military and architectural shenanigans on the Silk Road, “Dragon Blade” plays as recklessly with classical history as “300” did, but is far less butch and bloody, treating East-West friction with as much ambassadorial goodwill as an UNESCO fund-raising ball. Toplined by Jackie Chan, with John Cusack and Adrien Brody chipping in substantial screen time, the $65 million megahit flexes China’s Brobdingnagian filmmaking muscle and sees Hong Kong helmer-scribe Daniel Lee stepping up from a uneven portfolio to execute a colossal entertainment with solid technique and terrific storytelling smarts. Already slated for a U.S. release, the pic grossed $54.8 million domestically in four days, making it champion of the Chinese New Year blockbuster coliseum. International play may be less impressive, but the film will still be profitable on ancillary.
Touted as the first Chinese film to feature Romans as its main topic, “Dragon Blade” doesn’t exactly fit the sword-and-sandal mold; like its more facetious Japanese predecessor, “Thermae Romae,” the film filters classical civilization through the cultural perspective of Asians. The local family audience, despite having watched their fair share of gladiator movies, have never seen those genre conventions mashed up with Chinese martial arts and battle maneuvers. Nor have they seen many solely Chinese-produced films with such extensive participation from Hollywood stars, other than perhaps Zhang Yimou’s Christian Bale starrer, “The Flowers of War.” Add in a few exotic ethnic tribes who were once powerful invaders but are now yoked to Chinese sovereignty, and mainland audiences get an entertainment on par with a major studio blockbuster, infused with a hefty dose of national pride.
In a corny prologue set in 2015, two archaeologists (Vanness Wu, Karena Lam) discover the lost city of Regum, built by Romans during a fabled expedition to China. We are then transported back to 48 B.C., when China was under the reign of Emperor Xuan of the Han Dynasty, with 36 tribal nations vying for dominance at the country’s northwestern border. Huo An, a Hun orphaned during a skirmish, was adopted and raised by Han Chinese general Huo Qubing (William Feng Shaofeng), who taught him ideals of racial harmony; now (played by Chan), he tries with difficulty to maintain order as captain of the Silk Road Protection Squad.
While arbitrating a dispute, he inadvertently lifts the veil of warrior Cold Moon (Lin Peng), who now considers herself his betrothed by folk law. That Huo is already married to Xiuqing (Mika Wang), a gentle Uyghur teacher of Chinese, is less of an issue than his being framed for smuggling, which leads to him being exiled to Wild Goose Gate to help repair a fort city. Upon his arrival, he’s besieged by a renegade Roman legion under Gen. Lucius (Cusack), who has fled the capital with a blind boy, Publius (Joey Jozef). An unexpected sandstorm brings the road-weary soldiers under Huo’s wing. In return for his hospitality, they help reconstruct the city in 15 days. However, Publius’ brother, the Consul Tiberius (Brody), is marching toward them with an 100,000-strong army.
Just as he turned history upside down in his “Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon” and “White Vengeance,” Lee again dispenses almost entirely with accuracy. (Gen. Huo Qubing massacred Huns rather than spreading the gospel of peace, while Brody’s Tiberius is nothing like the emperor who reigned from 14-37 A.D.) Fortunately, the writer-director has overcome his tendency to weave florid plots that quickly run out of steam, here forging a coherent narrative that’s strong on physical and emotional drive. Yau Chi-wai’s editing has a brisk Hollywood tempo, while the packed screenplay ensures there’s always a duel, rumble or chase scene in between wordy lulls. The action choreography by Chan and frequent collaborator He Jun may not beat Chan’s death-defying acrobatics, but still achieve an exciting interplay of kung fu and gladiator fighting, mixing Asian nomadic cavalry movements with Roman infantry formations.
Ultimately, what gives “Dragon Blade” an edge over all Chan vehicles since 2009’s “Shinjuku Incident” is the drama — whether it’s the patriotic Lucius and humanist Huo finding common ground as exiles while also sharing codes of honor, or an episode of Roman architectural ingenuity which has the exhilarating momentum of an Amish barn-raising scene. Notwithstanding Huo’s constant advocacy of peace, some critical viewers may detect a tone of cultural chauvinism in the film’s patronizing attitude toward Occidentals (“You’re trained to kill, we’re trained to keep peace,” Huo says to Lucius), and its representation of ethnic minorities as belligerent, fractious primitives in need of Han Chinese civilization.
Chan has continued to peddle a nice-guy image ever since, well, “Mr. Nice Guy,” but thanks to the tight pacing, the actor’s weakness for sententious preaching onscreen is limited to terse platitudes (“Turn foe to friend,” “War kills families”) while displaying more energy than he did in his frazzled turn in “Police Story 2013.” Saddled with an undemanding heroic role, Cusack nonetheless displays an earnest zeal in the combat sequences and strikes up a genuinely warm affinity with Jozef.
As if trying to overcompensate for Tiberius’ garden-variety treachery, Brody seethes, glowers and recites his lines as though rehearsing for a production of “I, Claudius” at the Old Vic. Despite the only brief scenes allocated to female characters, Lin shines through with an assertive and indomitable air, especially when showing off her archery skills. Her Moon’s unshakeable belief that Huo is hers makes her a laughingstock at first, but as she repeatedly comes to his aid, she matures into the story’s most touchingly drawn figure.
The 3D conversion, done with an on-set stereographer throughout the shoot, is unobtrusive but not outstanding. Tech credits are otherwise accomplished, with Lee’s longtime partners delivering career-best efforts. Taking charge of production design, as per his last few films, the director makes sure the generous budget is right up there onscreen, both in the main mise-en-scene of Regum, and in the smaller but no less meticulously detailed sets, like Huo’s village or a prison chamber.
Tony Cheung’s sweeping widescreen lensing conveys the seemingly infinite span of the desert, while capturing the imposing scale of Roman tools and buildings with a deep sense of perspective. Compositions in the mass combat scenes, however, are often untidy and unfocused. Composer Henry Lai provides enlivening percussion during the action sequences, plus effective contrasts between classical music and plangent Shanxi folk tunes. Thomas Chong’s costume designs feature a dazzling array of ethnic attire, making each tribe instantly distinguishable. The Chinese title translates to “Celestial General, Heroic Army.”