In 48 BCE Huo An (Jackie Chan) leads a special squad of soldiers patrolling the Chinese border. When his team is implicated in a gold smuggling operation they are exiled to the isolated border post of Wild Geese Gate. There the Han Chinese forces are confronted by a Roman legion commanded by the Legionniare Lucius (John Cusack), who are fleeing from a murderous general (Adrien Brody) with aspiration to become Consul.
With China expanding into one of the world’s largest film-going markets, it is inevitable that Hollywood would increasingly aim its high-budget films at Chinese audiences – and that Chinese studios would attempt to target American audiences in return. Dragon Blade, starring Jackie Chan and John Cusack and directed by Daniel Lee, is a key example of that latter category of film. It tries, somewhat awkwardly, to straddle the divide between American and Chinese styles of filmmaking. It ultimately falls more on the Chinese side, which has the unfortunate side effect of making the American elements feel rather clumsy and twee.
To its credit, Dragon Blade tackles a fascinating part of history. There is some evidence of contact between the Roman and Chinese Empires in the early 1st century, scant and vague enough to give the film a huge amount of latitude in developing a story around it. When the film is at its best, it presents thrilling battle scenes between Roman and Chinese armies using different styles of swords and contrasting warfare strategies. Jackie Chan also acts as the film’s action director, and that gives these battle scenes and one-on-one duels a lot of energy and movement. It is also surprisingly even-handed, presenting the strengths of both nation’s fighting styles and techniques in a positive and entertaining manner.
Where the film struggles is in its earnest, straight-faced tone. This is relatively common for big-budget Chinese period films, with actors pretty much performing as noble archetypes and ascribing to generally very clear-cut roles of heroes and villains. The acting is generally quite stylised and non-realist. As this is a fairly typical route for a Chinese film, whenever the characters are performing in Chinese it feels completely normal and rather entertaining. When the time comes for scenes to be performed in English, the same approach feels wildly out of shape for its American cast. As the villain of the film Adrien Brody winds up over-acting horribly, while John Cusack comes across so matter-of-fact and weirdly low-key that his character could easily have walked out of High Fidelity or Con Air. He simply does not convince as a Roman commander, and instead he gives off an impression of an actor who simply does not have a firm handle on how they are supposed to perform in such an odd context.
Jackie Chan is Jackie Chan, relying on his standard on-screen persona to present a simple, non-controversial soldier with an excess of honour, nobility and trustworthiness. He has also undergone a slightly distracting make-over: his hair, eyebrows and odd little beard combine with some fairly thick make-up to create a slightly unreal, manufactured sort of look that stands out sharply against the dusty backgrounds of the Chinese frontier. He is, naturally, great at action, and does a tremendous job in the film’s sword-fighting climax.
Dragon Blade is far from a great film, but thanks to some solid action and an interesting setting it is certainly a broadly entertaining one. Given the generally see-saw quality of Chan’s films – one good, then one bad, and so on – it is also nice to stumble upon one of the better produced ones. The quest to find a film that can capture both Chinese and American audiences will continue; I am not uncertain that either country’s film industries has yet managed to succeed.