If it had been announced 15 or so years ago that the lead from High Fidelity would be prancing around as part of the Roman legion and having sword fights with Jackie Chan no doubt the disbelief this statement would have induced would have resulted in hysterical laughter. Yet somehow that’s where we find John Cusack in 2016. It’s certainly an intriguing notion - a mix of styles between Hollywood and the more traditional Asian cinema, with Chan balancing the comedic tones he’s well known for with the dramatic moments he has been experimenting with in recent years. The result is an uneven film that delivers in places while lacking in others. You can’t help but leave thinking the mix doesn’t quite work.
Telling the tale of the Silk Road Protection Squad, those who wish to keep peace between the nations all over the trade route. Led by Huo An (Chan), the Protection Squad have an opposing view to everyone else in the area and Huo An tries to be defensive rather than on the offensive. This certainly makes for an intriguing approach to combat, and there’s a strong theme running through the film of optimism and that violence isn’t necessary to solve all problems. Well mostly, as the film almost gives up on this approach as it tries to build to an epic conclusion, forgoing the high road for one of blood.
Let’s state the obvious - the action is well-directed and choreographed as you would want, especially the close-up fights. You would expect nothing less from Chan, and while he may be winding down his career in terms of big physical spectacles, there’s no sign here of a man who can’t keep up with his peers. Another plus point to the film is its visual style - grand and ambitious, the audience truly feel that this story is of an epic nature. While it’s no Lord of the Rings by any stretch of the imagination, it doesn’t need to be. The scope and ambition is there, but unfortunately a few too many parts simply fail to succeed.
Beyond Chan, it’s hard to enjoy the rest of the main casting. Cusack feels so out of place that it’s almost as if he wandered onto the wrong movie set and they had to use him because no one else had turned up. At least until Adrien Brody turns up and it’s that it was definitely the casting that’s so wrong. On paper, those three names stand out as talent that should really bring something strong to the table, but when two thirds are so completely out of place it brings an already middling script down even further. Brody’s performance in The Pianist feels like a lifetime ago, and watching his performance here you have to wonder if that was really him or a twin that has since disappeared.
Dragon Blade feels like someone had a strong idea, knew how it would look and feel, but somehow struggled to fit all the pieces together properly. Carried by Chan, the film never reaches its potential and is let down by two men in Cusack and Brody that have done far better in their careers and really shouldn’t be here. It’s really like taking square pieces and trying to fit them in round holes. By the end it’s hard not to feel disappointed at what could have been with a few better decisions made. One for the more loyal Jackie Chan fan out there.