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Dragon Wars - D-War
Is it possible to find the masterminds behind CGI - and specifically, the realistic dinos as danger circa Jurassic Park - and beat the ever lovin' snot out of them? While the subpar Sci-Fi Channel monsterfests are only partially their fault (Charles Band and his fellow schlock meisters also bear some of that burden), big screen spectacles like D-War (or Dragon Wars) definitely owe them a big fat kick in the keister. Without the motherboards ability to render quasi-realistic creatures, a movie like this lame South Korean beast battle wouldn't be possible. Apparently, thanks to technology, any vision - no matter how pointless or uninvolving - can make the leap into rendered reality. And just as George Lucas and his miserable Star Wars prequels proved, no amount of illogical animated eye candy can make up for drop dead dreadful acting. And if Dragon Wars has anything in abundance, it's piles and piles of horrendous thespianism.
Apparently, there is a myth involving something called the Imugi (aka lizard like dragons in training), their cosmic protector named Haram, and two competing creatures - the evil Buracki and a good version sent down directly from Heaven. Both want the ' Yuh Yi Joo', the spirit essence of 20 year old Narin. With it, they can shapeshift into their true form and...well, who really knows. Anyway, it is up to Haram to protect the gal, only allowing the good Imugi to achieve its aims. The pair, reincarnated in the form of suave CGNN reporter Ethan Kendrick and local gal Sarah Daniels, are now in modern day LA, and it's been 500 years since the last reptile uprising. Buraki gets his minions to attack the town in search of Sarah and the Yuh Yi Joo, while Ethan is helped by an old curio shop owner who told him of the prophecy when he was a boy. As they wait for the good Imugi to appear, an all out Dragon War takes place between the forces of otherworldly wickedness and modern military might. Guess who wins...
Dragon Wars, or D-War, or whatever slightly hip-hopish version of the title you want to refer to this film as, is really a simple story told in an incredibly ineffectual, near retarded manner. It frontloads its legend, labors over some minor period piecemeal material, and then heads straight for the standard exploding Tinsel Town tripe. We have to wait nearly an hour before the title terrors arrive, and even then we realize that the 1998 Godzilla remake handled the serpent vs. skyscraper situations better. In fact, the overall look of this film is cheap, bland and detached. It actually does play like a bad South Korean interpretation of a Hollywood action epic, right down to the dopey Michael Bay level dialogue and standard arrogant swagger. Unfortunately, director Shim Hyung-rae is no Bong Joon-ho. Heck, he's barely a Joe Johnston. Conversations capture the unnatural cadence of people talking at, not to, each other, while the oversized F/X have an Asylum like mockbuster feel. In fact, the whole film plays like moviemaking is the creators third or fourth artistic language. Instead of delivering the kind of elephantine events we've come to expect from the genre, the spectacle sputters, stumbles, and then stops.
And getting there is the really tough part. The whole Haram/Narin update plays like The Terminator minus Arnold's Teutonic drawl. There are moments that appear lifted from a comic spoof of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the human bad guys (apparently acting under the Imugi Buraki's crack paranormal battle plan) are '80s high concept creeps complete with compelling pleather uniforms. Everything prior to the arrival of the featured fiends is a time suck, while everything that occurs afterwards is Lord of the Rings via a combination of Krull and Eragon. Since it supposedly took the director five years to get this film off the ground, you'd figure they could pick better reference material than Grade-Z speculation. And then it turns out that love can conquer all, except in cases where personal sacrifice (and sequel set-ups) is required. The acting is atrocious, the compositions careless, and the overall tone one of mindless eye candy that forgets to add the proper amount of cinematic sugar. Had it been nothing but 90 minutes of nonstop dragon duels, we may have enjoyed the mayhem. But we're just bored by everything that occurs here.
Perhaps it's unfair to pick on a foreign film for its inherent cultural skewing. After all, if it plays to the people the filmmakers intended it for, then who are we to add our Western-ccentric criticism. Still, something as inert as D Dragon Wars really does deserve most of its condemnation. Again, it all goes back to how incredibly simple this story is. There is no deeper meaning, no attempt to tie honor, dignity, human pride, or other potential personality traits to the narrative. We don't get plaudits about protecting nature, obeying the order of the cosmos, or letting sleeping sky serpents lie. Instead, we move from myth to monster mash in as many uninvolving, expositional steps as possible. And along the way, we witness the misguided view that East has of West, a concept carved out of one too many English speaking sitcom and Hollywood popcorn product. Like the previously mentioned Bong Joon-ho and his wonderful film The Host proved, you can utilize creaky old creature feature conceits to bring something new to the wildlife run amuck title. All you need is some imagination, a solid foundation in filmmaking, and a proper balance between CG and reality. Dragon Wars D has none of this. It's the very definition of a wasted, watered down opportunity.
Offered by Sony in a decent, if less than definitive 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer (there's a kid friendly 1.33:1 full screen version as well, but who cares), the look of Dragon D Wars is middling at best. Fellow critic Adam Tyner points out that the Blu-ray version looks "uneven but generally impressive" with lots of detail. He also mentions the CG fails to seamlessly incorporate into the live action backdrop, and that's the same for the standard DVD release. In essence, this is as good as a foreign budgeted fantasy film can muster, and it's not all that bad.
The English only Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack only comes alive during the last act dragon balling, and even then, the back speakers are unusually silent most of the time. All the dialogue is easily discernible, and there are a couple of clever moments of surprising spatial dynamics (as in the last act reptile hoedown). Still, those hoping for a monumental aural experience to match the onscreen Eastern promise will be equally unimpressed.
Minor at best, the three pieces of added content offered do little to supplement the film. All are basic EPK quality, "5,000 Years in the Making" doing little except praising the movie via fans and the filmmakers. The animatics featurette is a little more interesting, if only to see how successfully the CG mimicked the vision for the action. Finally, the conceptual art gallery is a bunch of pretty pictures, and that's it. What's really needed here is some manner of outside context, showing how Shim Hyung-rae went from creator of comedies to large scale monster moviemaker. That would be far more interesting than what's actually offered.
Again, one has to go back to the original source for all these computer-generated shenanigans and wonder why old school programmers working in brand new, untried mediums could make something 1000% more effective and fun than this dull, decade later derivative. Of course, our South Korean director is no Stephen Spielberg, and the script is sloppier than a group of grade-schoolers eating Creamsicles. Still, Dragon Wars should be much, much better than it eventually is. Earning a rating of Rent It (mostly for those interested in seeing another country's view of the standard Tinsel Town tripe), one hopes that this doesn't signal a new trend in tacky CGI stupidity. After all, when a certain cable network can't stop making similarly stunted killer critter crapfests, mainstream movies don't need to follow suit. In the world of technological attempts, Dragon Wars is a Korean variation on Van Helsing - intriguing in theory but ultimately undone by its reliance on lax animation.
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