Dragon Dynasty has been carving quite the name for itself lately. With many forgotten and prominent titles in the collection it's safe to say that the publishing line has become the Criterion Collection of Hong Kong cinema. With releases such as Hard Boiled, Police Story, Infernal Affairs, and One Armed Swordsman in the lineup it's a daunting task for a new inductee to say the least. In the case of 2005's Dragon Heat (or Dragon Squad if you prefer) it certainly has an uphill battle ahead.
To be fair Dragon Heat does have a few feathers in its cap. For starters Sammo Hung is plays a role in the picture and so does Michael Biehn (of Terminator fame) for that matter. The film is also directed by Daniel Lee who had his hand in Black Mask and One Armed Swordsman in case you were counting. As far as the rest of the cast is concerned, Dragon Heat features popular actors like Maggie Q, Simon Yam, and Shawn Yue. Knowing these facts going in you would assume that the rest of the pieces would fall into place; unfortunately they don't.
Right from the start Dragon Heat displays its lack of organization and quickly heads down some confounding paths. Instead of getting to know the players gradually we have some MTV-inspired profiles thrown at us in a seemingly random order. As I sat there I felt as if the introduction to the film were intended to capture the attention of someone with ADD. It was almost like, "Ok, here are the good guys! Now, here are the bad ones! And this is what their both after!" Before the story even got going my senses were assaulted with rapid imagery and information about characters that simply wasn't worth assimilating. In many ways the movie felt like it started somewhere in the middle and by that point you're supposed to know everything that's going on.
The basic storyline here revolves around a prisoner who is being transported to court. Five Interpol agents were brought in to testify against him and find themselves in police custody, which actually turns out to be a joke. Almost immediately the cops are ambushed and everyone but the fab five is slaughtered. Oh, and guess what? The bad guy gets taken away regardless. I suppose it wouldn't have been much of a movie if he went to court and then to jail though after finishing Dragon Heat I probably would have found that more compelling in some ways.
To make a long story short the criminal wasn't actually rescued by friends, but rather his enemies. It would seem that his older brother owes some guy a lot of money and as you'd imagine, in the underworld they have interesting methods of getting what's theirs. A little torturing doesn't hurt anyone and so what if someone loses an ear? We're talking about a lot of money here! In any event the cops work with the intended target to take down the kidnappers and all sorts of hell breaks loose in the process.
During the course of Dragon Heat the plot gets lost somewhere within the details. Rather than providing necessary twists and climaxes throughout the film, it mostly settles into the routine of showing you what's going on with both sides of the conflict. We get to see some tender moments between Kong Long (Sammo Hung) and his daughter but apart from those bits his character is rather underdeveloped and he's left to chauffer to five Interpol agents around. However, the little bit that we do know about Long is far more than we ever learn of Dragon Heat's five heroes. They feel like props put in place to give the bad guys something to shoot at and to be honest you'll never connect with or feel anything for any of them.
On the opposite side of the fence is Michael Biehn's mercenary group. Ironically we actually get to see more of them during the course of the film than the actual protagonists. Sure we never really learn what motivates them to do what they do but the fact that they receive more screen time than the heroes is kind of funny. It polarizes the film in a way and each personality gets lost in the shuffle in the meantime. I felt disconnected by the time the picture ended and didn't care about who lived, who died, or how things turned out. As you'd imagine that's not really a good thing.
I do have to say that the action sequences were well done and the firefights that were present here were gory and intense. If you're a fan of cop and robber shootouts then you're going to find plenty of thrills here. There were many moments scattered in between the boredom and confusion where the adrenaline was kicked up a notch. This is especially true for the ending action sequence and it's safe to say that you never know who'll end up biting a bullet until you watch it.
In the end Dragon Heat may provide a gun-slinging action overload but it doesn't make up for the fact that the plot is very weak. So many areas of this film could have been spruced up to make for a fleshed out experience. As it stands we are only given a glimpse at the world and story through snippets of random scenes loosely sown together. Some of you may appreciate this style of storytelling more than I but I prefer to have a cohesive plot with my action. Sadly, Dragon Heat only offers the latter.
Originally produced in 2005, Dragon Heat is definitely a treat for the eyes. The richly contrasted colors set to the backdrop of a slightly muted world truly pop from the screen. The grittiness of the streets of Hong Kong comes to life and some deep shadows help to perpetrate that. Throughout the film the compression rate never dips and the image remains solid. There was no blocking, no grain, and no aliasing of any kind to detract from the overall look of the movie. I do have to admit that some scenes lacked the sharpness they should have and in a few spots there was some loss of detail. Overall though this is a great looking picture and it stands as another solid transfer by Dragon Dynasty.
I'm a stickler for watching films in their original languages and as such I enjoyed the Cantonese audio tracks significantly more than the English. Sure there was still some English scattered throughout the Cantonese dub but it contained more energy than the straight out English version. Technically speaking the original language maintains DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks while the Americanized track offers just 5.1. Each track promotes some fine use of the soundstage and once the action heats up you'll feel a decent sense of immersion. It wasn't the best use of the rear channels and there were not "outstanding moments", but there's plenty to appreciate.
If you're familiar with the Dragon Dynasty releases then chances are very good that you have heard a commentary with Bey Logan. The Hong Kong expert is back again for Dragon Heat but this time around it's on a more personal level as well. Logan happens to be one of the producers of the film and this commentary marks the first time he's talked about a movie that he has worked on. With his personal knowledge of the project he provides a lot of insight into what went on behind the scenes with the actors and he unveils a lot of the process involved in making Dragon Heat. Ironically I actually found the commentary far more interesting than the film itself.
Clocking in at 28:21 is a Making Of Dragon Heat featurette which actually gives a very good look at how scenes were put together. Some of the crew chimes in and there's a lot of detail about the bits of action and what it took to put them together. Along with Logan's commentary this feature pretty much completes the package and provides everything you'd ever want to know about Dragon Heat. Two interview segments are included with Lawrence Chou and Michael Biehn. Both talk about their history and involvement with the film as well as what it was like to work with Lee and the rest of the crew. Chou and Biehn are pretty open about themselves and very personable so their interviews were fun to watch. The final piece of the Dragon Heat supplemental puzzle is a three minute deleted scene with Sammo Hung doing what he does best.
I hate to say it, but Dragon Heat was a disappointment for me. I came looking for a hardnosed cop story with well-developed characters and a rich story. Sadly the end result here features neither of those. The action outweighs the plot and the characters are so underused they feel like dominoes set up for the story to knock down. Collectors will want to add this to their Dragon Dynasty pile but in my opinion it's probably the line's weakest film. Great action sequences, a nice presentation, and some fantastic extras don't make up for the fact that the story feels like an afterthought.