I have to confess I have an ulterior motive in urging everybody in the world to watch Dragon Blade this weekend: I am dying to see the GIFs that people are going to make of this movie. So many GIFs. Endless, wonderful GIFs of WTFery. This movie will never stop giving me joy.
We posted the trailer for Dragon Blade a while back, and it occasioned a lot of head-scratching. It’s a movie set in ancient China (50 BCE, I think), and Jackie Chan is a captain who’s helping to keep the peace on the Silk Road. But an ancient Roman legion, commanded by that stout Roman general, John Cusack, has strayed pretty far from Rome and soon Cusack and Chan collide.
To make matters infinitely more ridiculous, Cusack is being chased by his former commander, who’s played by Adrien Brody. And where Chan and Cusack at least sort of think they’re in a real historical drama, Brody did not get that memo at all. In every scene he’s in, Brody just snarls and preens and purrs and shouts and yarrrrghs, and generally acts like a villain from the never-made third Joel Schumacher Batman film. All of the ancient Chinese scenery is crushed within the mighty jaws of Adrien Brody’s acting in this film. It’s the most incredible performance I’ve ever seen.
All of that was evident from the trailer, hence the head-scratching. Sadly, the trailer we posted back then has been taken down. But here’s one that contains at least some of the Brody magnificence:
Honestly, though, nothing I can tell you can convey the amazing wonder of this film. You really just have to see it for yourself.
So the trailer made it clear that this is a movie where the brilliant action-comedy star Jackie Chan is playing it straight, and meanwhile Cusack sort of stands around looking puzzled in his Roman soldier armor—while Brody is busy UNCAGING THE BEAST WITHIN, with the sort of performance that makes you wonder if the man prepared for this role by making Tarzan noises in the shower.
What the trailers do NOT adequately convey is quite how nutso this film is. This is the sort of film where there are like 10 armies—Peter Jackson, eat your heart out—and one of those armies has trained attack birds. You read that right—trained attack birds. At one point, they go in for the kill against the enemy cavalry, and suddenly this movie turns into Birdemic 3. And everytime there’s a dramatic moment, the movie flings you into a series of nested flashbacks, to the point where it’s hard to tell what’s happening now and what happened back then. Also this is the sort of movie where plot developments whip past at lightning speed, to the point where you have no clue who’s supposed to be a good guy or a bad guy—but there’s also time for a ten-minute sequence where Jackie Chan, John Cusack and a small blind child all sing to each other.
(Apparently one reason for the movie’s lightning-fast pace and lack of coherence is the fact that 25 minutes was cut from the U.S. version, including possibly all the stuff where the plot is explained.)
ALSO! This is the sort of movie where an elaborately New Wave-made-up woman that we’ve basically never seen before shows up towards the end, to sort everything out, and utters lines (in English) like, “Power is the conceit that reveals our limitations.” So, so true.
But at the same time—Roman soldiers versus Chinese warriors! There are some straight-up excellent martial-arts-on-Roman-shield action sequences, and part of the movie’s sense of total insanity comes from throwing those two very different styles of combat (or the movie versions thereof) together and watching them smash into each other.
Oh, speaking of which—all the Romans in this film speak English, but all the Chinese people speak Chinese. And when Jackie Chan meets the Romans, he starts speaking English to them within about five minutes.
I don’t want to get too much into listing all the completely rando things that happen in this film, because I want you to experience them for yourself, so you can have the same “holy shit, did they just —” moments that I had. Also, I couldn’t possibly do justice to the ridiculosity of Dragon Blade without an MFA in poetry from a school co-founded by Charles Bukowski and Russ Meyer, where in lieu of critique sessions they administered speedballs from a rusty bike-pump syringe and the naked concussions swarmed over rooftops of flaming magnesium in the barking moonlight. And too bad, I didn’t get that MFA.
Let’s put it this way—when it comes to shouty fighty dementedness, Dragon Blade makes 300 look like .003.
In fact, Dragon Blade is a strong contender for this year’s Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, or Season of the Witch. (It’s sad that we’re already in September, and I can’t really name any other leading contenders for that honor off the top of my head. WTF, movie-makers?)
After watching this movie, a thought that’s been in the back of my mind for a while started forming into an actual theory: One key ingredient of a truly excellent so-bad-it’s-good movie is that it should actually have a kernel of goodness in it. Some element that is admirable, or so sincere that you can’t help be moved by it. Some sense that either the people making the film were trying hard to do something good, or else they were wonderfully self-aware about the badness of the enterprise.
Certainly, a lot of my favorite so-bad-it’s-good movies have something weirdly sympathetic about them, that come from a low-budget auteur’s obsession with—for example—making a half-dozen exploitation movies about post-apocalyptic roller-skating nuns. Or some central idea, or some strong emotion, that comes through despite all of the clutter and questionable artistic choices.
Dragon Blade definitely has that. At its center, this is a film about the meeting of two cultures, with a message (that’s hammered home again and again) about the importance of understanding other cultural viewpoints. There’s a bit of jingoism here and there—in one scene, Jackie Chan tells John Cusack that the Romans are trained from childhood for war, while the Chinese are all trained for peace. But the movie’s sentimental bleeding heart is all about the idea that every culture has something to teach every other culture, and that mutual understanding is always preferable to war. It’s not subtle, but it is something the movie hangs some of its better emotional moments on (the ones where Chan and Cusack, in particular, seem to think they’re in a real historical drama.)
So maybe to achieve total so-bad-it’s-good supremacy, to be not just apathetically bad but gloriously bad, a movie needs to have something good, or sincere, or meaningful, at its heart. I’m not sure that theory will stand up in the case of every great bad movie ever. But it’s something that felt valid in the case of Dragon Blade—a film where you come for the attack birds, the completely nonsensical storytelling, and Adrien Brody’s mighty roar, and stay for the heartfelt-but-spoonfed messages of peace and understanding.
Dragon Blade is in select theaters and on Video On Demand (including iTunes) today. Please do not let me down, GIF-makers.