Bad Example: Dragon Wars

by Jay Stringer

I’m sticking with creature features this month in honor of the guys’ next Matinee Idles selection.

The saying goes that you can’t judge a book by its cover. Does the same hold true for movies? One look at the front cover for DRAGON WARS, and I had a pretty good idea of what the film would be.

The project was something of a labor of love for the director, Shim Hyung-rae, who spent five years working on it. Given the time and enthusiasm he clearly put into it, the film isn’t a disaster. There are things to like in here, and for long stretches the film actually works. But there are just too many problems, too many short cuts, for the film to really be successful.

Let’s start with the plot itself. Right from the off, we have a lot of information thrown at us. Not a lot of it sticks. There is something about two ancient serpents who want to turn into dragons, and an army of soldiers who dress like Cylons.

Every five-hundred years, these two serpents must race to find a woman with a dragon tattoo in order to be transformed into an all-powerful dragon. One of the serpents is evil, and has command over an army of unexplained beasties. The good serpent seems to have command over old men and small children. I know which one my money would be on.

Any time a film mentions fate or destiny, I cringe. It seems that writers all to often use those concepts as get-out clauses. They feel they don’t have to do the hard word involved in plotting a story, because things can just be explained away as ‘fate.’ So we get films that have way to many coincidences, way to many random and unexplained things, and we are supposed to give a free pass to  them because, hey, it’s fate.

My brain does not work that way. I am not going to accept that something in the modern day film I’m watching happens just because it was prophesised five-hundred years ago in Korea. If the two male leads, the only two people on the planet who can stop the evil, are going to be within a few blocks of each other in the same city, I want to see the hard work. I want to know how fate has conspired to make this happen. DRAGON WARS chooses not to do this hard work, and asks us just to accept a few things. It asks us to accept a lot of things, actually.

The reason it can’t put in the hard graft of explaining how things have worked in the modern world is because the first fifteen minutes of the film is a prologue in ancient Korea. Elmore Leonard, one of America’s great crime novelists, has ten rules of writing. Rule number two is, ‘avoid prologues.’ Harsh? Yes. Prologues can work. Peter Jackson did a decent job of it in The Fellowship of the RingsMagnolia and Raising Arizona both have good ones, if memory serves, and let’s not forget Serenity. So it can be done, but on the whole, the information you’re putting into a prologue is slowing you down. The same information could be delivered later, through the plot of the story.

Leonard’s tenth rule is, ‘try to leave out the part that the readers tend to skip.’ Related to a movie we could adapt that to; leave out the parts that make the viewer look at their watch or reach for the remote. And by taking a film set in modern day Los Angeles and throwing in a prologue about ancient Korea, you are not leaving out the part that will lose your viewer.

If you’re going to go back into the past, you need to give the audience something to fix on or care about. Peter Jackson gave us the ring. Serenity gives us River Tam. DRAGON WARS doesn’t really give us anything to care about in a prologue filled with giant beasts and explosions. I’m told the film was based on Korean myth, so perhaps the native Korean audience already had a vested interest in this segment, but then why not make that the whole film?

Other things writers will tell you not to do in a film are flashbacks and voiceovers. I think those writers are talking out of somewhere smelly; both devices can work very well in the right hands. Look at Highlander. It has it’s flaws, but it knows when and how to give us a flashback. Imagine either Taxi Driver or Radio Days without a voiceover. The trouble is that within the first few minutes, Hyung-rae has given us both. We get a voiceover that takes us into a flashback, and then the flashback leads into the prologue. In fact, if we can count dragons as animals, then within the first five minutes the film has given us; voice over, flashback, prologue, children and animals. It’s smashing the rule book to pieces, and for that alone I want to love it, but it just doesn’t pull it all off.

Buried away in that opening few minutes is probably a very entertaining historical fantasy epic. The filmmakers might have been better served by giving that story the breathing space of a full 90-minute movie of its own. It could have started out that way, who knows? Perhaps the original script was for a trilogy rather than a 90-minute action film?

Once the story gets underway properly in the modern day, it starts to find its feet. There are still many problems, but also a lot of pleasant surprises. The effects on show are impressive, somehow looking far more real than George Lucas managed in his billion dollar toy adverts of the last decade. I’ve never seen any proof that Jason Behr is an actor blessed with much range, but he’s effective enough at looking troubled and running away from giant lizards. Robert Forster and Craig Robinson manage to be the most reliable actors in any film that they’re in, and they both come out of their scenes here with some credit.

Stuck in the middle of all of this is a film that I quite enjoyed. The trouble is it was only a small chunk of the actual film. For the middle section it’s basically a terminator style chase movie, with a giant mythical creature rampaging across L.A. The director handles this section really well, seeing the creature juxtaposed against normal everyday locations, such as parking lots and suburbs, was fun and effective. I would have rather watched this section expanded into a full film than have to go back to reincarnation and prophecy. The film also threw me a couple of surprises, there was a character death early on that I wasn’t expecting which raised the stakes a little.

The action is very well done. There is a strong enough vision guiding the set pieces that they do not fall apart, and they manage to be quite effective. If the film had done anything to develop the characters or relationships, then these set pieces might have meant something.

The characters were the real losers in the film. Okay, let me change that; aside from logic, the characters were the real losers in this film. Between the information dump at the start of the film, the chase scenes and the finale (in a castle that surely would attract attention in L.A.?) there is no chance for the film to develop its characters. This is where you really need to pull a Harrison Ford out of the bag; Ford had a rare gift in being able to make you care about thinly developed characters amid crazy epic adventures. This film doesn’t have Harrison Ford, and it doesn’t seem to realize that is a problem. Big things happen to these characters, love, adventure and death, but the film never puts in the hard work to make us care about them. I think this is another problem with films about fate, it is all to easy to ignore character development when your protagonists are just pawns in some ancient prophecy.

I think with a little more hard work on the script this film could have worked. All it needed was more focus and more character work. Two simple things to talk about, but very hard thing to pull off. If you get them right though, your story works. If you do not, or if you ignore them altogether, then your story fails.

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