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Dungeons and Dragons 2 - Wrath of the Dragon God
Dungeons & Dragons is a role playing game that uses multi-sided dice to propel a series of events played out by a group of like-minded people. You go on quests of one sort or another and uncover riches and terrors as guided by a leader called a dungeon master. The game has been around over thirty years and tends to be the last bastion of the geek or nerd who end up playing for hours on end as they build up the statistics of their fantasy incarnation that typically empowers them mentally in a world that really doesn't seem to appreciate intelligence (at least until they get older). I've had some limited experience with the game and have found it fun to play (at least before the advent of the computer game that is) and while I know this stereotype of the players isn't exactly fair; it is pretty common. Regardless, movies and television shows trying to cash in on the franchise haven't done very well as the general public doesn't want to have to "learn" a bunch of trivia in order to enjoy them; perhaps the biggest hurdle faced by those seeking to capitalize on the game. Until someone makes a version that appeals to the masses more than the geek population, this will likely always be the case (for example, the recent Lord of the Rings trilogy) no matter what the vocal minority think about it.
Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God was the sequel to the highly disappointing New Line release several years ago. Skipping the theatres altogether, it aired last year on the Sci-Fi Channel one Saturday night to less than stellar acclaim. The reasoning varied from the low budget it must have had to the poor acting, lame CGI not-so-special effects, crappy script, and other factors. While I didn't think each of those reasons was completely fair, you'd think with a budget of $15 million that something better than this could've been made (and there were no stars hamming it up really badly like Jeremy Irons did in the first volume to bust the budget). Directed by Gerry Lively, a guy known mostly for low budget horror movies, the story took place a 100 years in the future from the events of the last movie. Bruce Payne was the only major cast member to rejoin the effort, reprising his role as the chief evil villain, Damodar.
Damodar is one of the living dead thanks to screwing up his master's wishes last time and he seeks revege on the folks from a small city where the previous heroes came from so he scours the earth looking for an ancient artifact that will allow him to control, or at least awaken, a dragon god of mythic power. Yeah, that gets borrowed from another movie but bear with me a moment, okay? The good guys get heads up and seek to stop him before the dragon awakens. In the questing party are a warrior, a cleric, an elf mage, a female barbarian, and a rogue who join for no apparent reason only to get offed as they encounter creatures from the franchise created on what looked to be someone's home computer. There was little excitement as they fought off the forces of evil using their respective abilities and the final show down was about as close a knock off to Dragon Slayer as I've seen in the past 25 years. The basic premise is this: they don't know where the bad guy is, they don't know how to overcome him, and they have no idea of how to use the object if they happen to steal it from him. This purportedly allows the director to poorly use the budget to have them mindlessly wander until they get lucky, a funny ingredient considering the looming deadline for the awakening of the beast.
I wanted to enjoy the movie when I first saw it on cable; I really did. I could overlook the lame effects that seemed to come from a couple generations ago system (I'm thinking Dreamcast or PS1 folks) and I could overlook the cheesy sets from Lithuania where the principle shooting took place. What bothered me the most, outside of the lame acting was how devoid of imagination the script was for the movie. It was like they took something else and dumbed it down completely in a manner that a "true" fan of D&D should find offensive (essentially, it made all of you look supportive of crap by association and I know better). I don't want to keep beating up on the movie since that would prove fruitless but this one wasn't even good enough to go straight-to-video, skipping DVD initially to go to non-premium cable television. As such, I thought for all the flaws it was only worth a rating of Skip It to anyone willing to watch it sober.
Picture: Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God was presented in anamorphic widescreen color with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 as originally shot by director Gerry Lively. Wherever the money went, it did not go deeply into the visual aspects of the movie which was reportedly shot in HDTV. There were numerous flaws like grain, pattern noise, digital artifacts, and that cheap look you get on low budget made-for-cable movies that the Sci-Fi Channel is known for. The special effects weren't very special (as mentioned earlier, they looked like they came from an older video game system) and didn't seem to combine well with the live action aspects of the movie either. They even used stills with voice-overs in a manner that added to the problems.
Sound: The audio was presented in 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround English. There wasn't a lot of use of the subwoofer (maybe the dragons weighed the same as feathers here) and the score seemed derivative to say the least. While I could hear the vocals well enough, being able to hear what's being said and having it make an impact like a modern adventure movie is supposed to do are two different things. The separation between the channels was nothing exciting and for the most part, the audio seemed to fall prey to the budget before all the other elements. For those who care, there were subtitles in English, French and Spanish that all seemed to be slightly off when I spot checked them.
Extras: One of the things the original volume in this series had going for it was a set of extras better than the movie itself and I wish I could have said that here too. The audio commentary by Edward Stark (special projects manager of D&D), Dawn Akemi (playing the role of Lidda), and John Rosenblum (Jozan) struck me as among the weakest efforts I've listened to in recent years (and I try to listen to all the commentaries for titles I review). If it got better after the first twenty minutes (I spot checked it after that), I apologize but it was putting me to sleep. There were also two short featurettes; Rolling the Dice: adapting the game to the screen, and The Arc: a conversation with Gary Gygax. Okay, the two featurettes weren't bad but they essentially boiled down to those involved with the movie trying to make the project sound good. In that sense, they did a good job but watching the movie will dispel those thoughts pretty quickly. There were some DVD Rom contents too but I've had bad experience with such features and didn't want to worry about losing my harddrive again.
Final Thoughts: Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God had a couple of moderately shining moments with actor Tim Stern playing the nay saying rogue but that stereotype wasn't pushed beyond the usual level either. The fighting looked fake, the effects looked worse than the general level of the movie and I really didn't think the show offered anything worth your time and money. I'll admit that the genre's slavering fanboys might appreciate it more than the vast majority of adult humans I've encountered over the years but even kids who've grown up with such wondrous technological advances in the last ten years will find this one on the weak side. There are far better examples of the genre and I certainly hope that any future releases under the D&D banner focus less on effects than on good writing and acting.