Korean cinema rarely fuses well with western influences. The same can easily be said for any Asian director who makes the transition from their home territory to the glitz and glamour of the Hollywood system. Okay, so some people like John Wu manage to make something of themselves in that world – even if their English-speaking work is arguably less impressive than those films completed in their native language – but for the most part it is usually a difficult and nearly impossible mountain to climb.
I’d best get something straight before getting into this properly. Dragon Wars doesn’t contain what most people would describe as dragons, for the most part. Instead we have a dragon-like serpent that slithers around the place as if it’s a legless version of the T-Rex from The Lost World: Jurassic Park. It’s not as bad as it sounds, honest.
On the subject of influences and homages, there’s a heavy Godzilla vibe to the initial destruction we see in the film’s opening moments. That’s the 1998 Godzilla, for the record. I know, I know – we don’t like to be reminded of its existence, but it’s the best point of reference in this instance. Events quickly veer off this path and into a weird combination of Gremlins and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. See? It does get better.
While there is a veneer of western cinema about the main plot, the real meat is in the flashbacks to the era of feudal Japan. The CGI isn’t too offensive and the martial arts sequences impress. As do the costumes, for what it’s worth.
Then it’s spoiled by returning to the modern day and focusing on Jason Behr as Ethan and Craig Robinson as Bruce, a journalist and his camera man who get embroiled in a plot where Ethan and Amanda Brooks’ Sarah find out that they are the reincarnated spirits (or something) of the couple who encountered the serpents hundreds of years previously. It gets even sillier from this point forward, and not necessarily for the better.
The final half hour is almost nothing more than an ongoing action sequence as the giant, serpent-like creature chases after Ethan and Sarah, all the while giving off a sense of the final moments of King Kong (it doesn’t matter which version, in this case – take your pick. I’d go with the 1933 original, personally).
The issues with the film lie in its narrative approach. Exposition is dropped awkwardly and the flashback sequence promises a much better story than the one that is actually delivered. At least we can enjoy the insanity of the action sequences, which almost – but not quite – make up for the clunky narrative. The ancient army, filled with all sorts of weird and wonderful creatures, going head to head with a modern day military force is quite impressive, although we’re soon moving away from this and following Ethan and Sarah again as they try to end the curse and stop these giant dragon things following them about the place.
Dragon Wars is a mixed bag for certain. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t. Put it this way – if you dropped the western world story and replaced it with something more organic and fitting with the Korean legend it is based on, we’d have a far better film.