There's the whole "so bad, it's good" cliché, and then there's Dragon Wars: D-War, the second Korean monster-amuck flick to wash up on these shores over the past year and change. Yeah, I could ramble on about the plot, which is based on an old Korean legend about serpents -- some good, some evil -- that can transform into dragons by chowing down on the spirit of a foxy twenty year old broad every five centuries, but rattling off stuff like "Imoogi" and "Yuh Yi Joo" is just gonna make your eyes glaze over, so here's the Cliff's Notes version with some of the highlights:
Camp appeal is just about the only thing Dragon Wars has going for it. The story teeters on the brink of being completely incoherent, and the awkward, stilted dialogue sounds like it had been scribbled down on a napkin in Korean and piped through Babelfish for the American actors. "Everyone believes the time of dragons has passed...but the time of dragons has only just begun." "Okay, a 19 year old girl with a tattoo in Los Angeles. You're killin' me, man; you've just described every 19 year old girl in L.A.!" The overcaffeinated editing is obnoxiously choppy too, and I'm still shaking my head at its weak stabs at comic relief.
- A legion of flying snakes big enough to wrap themselves around skyscrapers and a couple hundred mini-dragons squaring off against tanks and choppers in the heart of downtown L.A.
- While already in the middle of one flashback, Dragon Wars flashes back again, this time to the 1500s with a wizened old man zipping around the sky blasting fireballs, a battalion of faux-dinosaurs packing rocket launchers, and a savage yet completely bloodless raid on an ancient Korean village
- Big American stars like the guy from Roswell and Daryl from The Office
- A nightmare consisting entirely of a four-door sedan growing scales
- A small army of FBI agents shooting the living hell out of knights in full armor, whose leader swipes his sword and wipes all of the feds out in a wave of fire, a handy trick he never, ever uses again
- The lead bad guy -- who bellows through an octave pedal and struts around with goofy metal shit on his fingers -- getting hit by two different cars in the space of, like, a minute and a half
- Elizabeth Peña phoning it in as a scientist rambling about how a dragon scale is the hardest substance in the world, one of many, many scenes that has no bearing on the plot at all
- An oversized snake raiding a zoo and spitting out an elephant
- A Mighty Morphin Robert Forster levitating in his antique shop, feigning a heart attack, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-ing would-be rapists
- A car chase with one of the Imoogi in the suburbs where the snake abruptly gives up after a couple of minutes because I guess the visual effects budget ran dry
- When our heroes make a mad dash across the border to a hopefully-dragon-free Mexico, they're caught by the bad guys and somehow wind up in Middle Earth
- The key to defeating an ancient evil is standing around. After you do that and the next badnik pops out, lay on the ground and do nothing to ensure the ultimate victory.
- Following an epic battle where I had no idea which serpent was supposed to be the good one, I learned that a real dragon has antlers. Oh, and they can cry.
The only way that Dragon Wars really delivers is that there really are a whole helluva lot of dragons. My biggest gripe about the Godzilla flicks was that the big G was barely a supporting character in his own movies, on screen for maybe 20 minutes while the rest was devoted to kids in creepily-tiny shorts or some reporter caught up in an alien plot; Dragon Wars has oversized snakes, winged beasties, and mammoth turtles lugging around cannons on-screen for right at half of its 90 minute runtime. I mean, this is a movie with a legion of these creatures pitted against the might of the U.S. military and trashing downtown L.A., and that sprawling, epic battle isn't even the climax of Dragon Wars. Too bad the effects work isn't all that great. The extensive digital effects are more polished than your everyday, garden variety Sci-Fi Original Movie -- and that's just about the only way Dragon Wars is a step-up from the likes of Mansquito or Shark Attack 3 -- but even though they'd be first-rate in a PS3 game, it all looks sorely out of place mixed in with the live-action footage.
Oh well. I've devoted more than half my life to schlock cinema, so I dug Dragon Wars. It's aggressively awful, yeah, but Dragon Wars is inept almost to the point of being charming, and at least the movie's never dull. Hell, I think I busted out laughing more with this flick than just about any comedy I've watched this year. If you've trudged your way this far down the review, you'll probably find Dragon Wars at least worth shelling out a few bucks to rent, but wait for this Blu-ray disc to hit the cut-out bin before buying it.
Video: This 2.39:1 high definition presentation of Dragon Wars is uneven but generally impressive. The bulk of the photography throughout the film is crisp, well-defined, and strikingly detailed, and even though many of the digital effects fail to blend in convincingly with the live action visuals, the texturing of these creatures is still unmistakably high-def. The overall quality can be erratic, though, particularly in the sequences that bookend Dragon Wars. Some of the digitally sweetened shots have a flat, overprocessed look to them, lacking the rock-solid contrast and clarity of the rest of the movie. A couple of dimly-lit moments suffer from some heavy black crush, and the weight of film grain can be wildly uneven from shot to shot as well. As expected for such a recent theatrical release, there isn't any wear or speckling, and the AVC encoding has enough headroom that no compression artifacting creeps in. Somewhat inconsistent but mostly a strong effort.
Audio: Dragon Wars' Dolby TrueHD soundtrack is much more of a mixed bag. The subwoofer is kept rattling throughout, but the bass sounds sludgy and overcooked in some of the earliest action sequences while coming across as almost timid at times later in the movie. Even though the last half of Dragon Wars is just about wall-to-wall chaos, the mix doesn't immerse the room in sound the way most action flicks do. There are a number of discrete effects in the rear channels, but it's almost as if the sound just leaked back there, half-heartedly slapped on the surrounds just because they're there. The mix isn't particularly engaging or immersive, falling short of the usual expectations for this sort of effects spectacle.
A second TrueHD soundtrack features dialogue dubbed in French. This Blu-ray disc also includes subtitles in French, Chinese, and Spanish, along with streams in both traditional English and one subtitled for the deaf and hard of hearing.
Extras: Not much. The only particularly meaty extra is the standard definition featurette "5,000 Years in the Making" (18 min.), most of which is in Korean but for whatever reason isn't subtitled by default. Leaning away from the usual featurette formula, the bulk of "5,000 Years..." has writer/director Hyung-rae Shim gushing about the movie in front of a slew of fans at some sort of fantasy con. Shim briefly touches on Dragon Wars taking its inspiration from Korean folklore, his stabs at trying to make the movie accessible to European and American audiences, sweet-talking his way into having tanks plow through downtown Los Angeles, and setting up his own visual effects company rather than just outsource D-War's digital dragons. Also touched on are the approach to the film's sound design -- particularly the screeching cry of these creatures -- as well as how Shim wrangled composer Steve Jablonsky into working on the film. A good bit of behind the scenes footage, animatics, and storyboards are occasionally splashed on-screen as Shim and the handful of other speakers chat about Dragon Wars.
Five particularly effects-intensive scenes from the movie are featured in a set of storyboard comparisons, which also include a peek at animatics and early renders. An extensive gallery of conceptual art -- fifty different pieces of artwork in all -- rounds out the extras. It's kind of a drag that these images are fairly small, especially since so much of the screen's real estate is left empty.
Conclusion: Dragon Wars -- or D-War if you like your taglines a little more X-TREME!!!! -- is worth a look for schlock completists, but the rest of the free world will want to stay far, far away. Rent It.
The images scattered around this review are promotional stills and aren't meant to represent the way the movie looks in high definition.