Here’s a quick bit of trivia that’ll make you feel old – back in the late 90’s, Jackie Chan made the leap from Hong Kong to Hollywood by teaming with Chris Tucker in the “Rush Hour” series and Owen Wilson in the “Shanghai” films. Fast forward almost two decades, and now it’s Hollywood stars like John Cusack and Adrien Brody that are making the trek to China to pair up with Jackie in sweeping historical epics like “Dragon Blade”. The times sure are a-changin’!
The always amazing Jackie Chan steps into the role of Chinese soldier Huo An, who forms a strong bond with AWOL Roman centurion Lucius, played by John Cusack. The young Roman prince Plubius, played by Jozef Waite, comes under the care of both of our heroes, while Huo An’s wife Xiu Qing and his skilled archer ally Cold Moon are played by Mika Wang and Lin Peng. All of our heroes find themselves opposed by the bloodthirsty ruler of Rome, Emperor Tiberius, played by Adrien Brody and his vast legion, which includes a few Chinese soldiers who jump ship to his side.
In 50 BC, Chinese soldier Huo An commands a faction of his homeland’s military class dubbed The Silk Road Protection Squad, always only drawing his sword as a last resort and striving to end disputes through diplomacy.
While assisting with the construction of a fortress in the desert dubbed the Wild Geese Gate, the deposed Roman centurion Lucius arrives outside the gates with his legion in tow, and Huo An averts a conflict by allowing the legion sanctuary within the city. Both armies quickly form a brotherly bond while constructing the city, which grows stronger with the arrival of the ruthless Emperor Tiberius, determined to use his vast legion to claim the entire Silk Road.
Period movies are a dime a dozen in the Far East, but putting Jackie Chan and ancient Rome in the same film is certainly a first! The sets and costumes of both the Roman and Chinese characters are of a quality that most museums wish they could claim their archive and easily the equal of both “Hero” and “Gladiator”.
After dipping his toes into the waters of a weary and worn-out cop in “Police Story Lockdown”, Jackie brings back some of his endearing personality traits to the character of Huo An. Here, he’s once again a veteran who’s been through his share of battles, but hasn’t been beaten down by the rigors of his profession, genuinely believing he can always solve a dispute in a spirit of win-win.
As one of the two Hollywood stars of the film, John Cusack’s a surprisingly solid partner for Jackie. He’s not quite the kind of uber-badass Roman General that Maximus was (he sadly doesn’t get a “sometimes the frost makes the blade stick” moment), but like Huo An, he’s a soldier who believes the pen to be mightier than the sword. The film devotes much of its middle section to the armies of the two generals engaging in the pulse-racing, blood-pumping act of building a wall, but under Daniel Lee’s direction, seeing both legions form such a close bond never makes the film feel like it’s slowing down for a moment.
Since both sides are made up of trained warriors, each gains a deeper respect for the other through a demonstration of their respective martial arts skills. A few sparring matches between the soldiers of Huo An and Lucius are included; executed with a great degree of intensity, albeit knowing neither side intends to do any serious harm to the other.
Elsewhere in the film, the combat scenes are equally powerful and blazingly fast. Fitting for the time period, it’s largely based around sword work, and you’d swear that these guys were really out to slice and dice each other. Jackie swings a sword more in this film alone than he has in the last fifteen years and both of his American co-stars do a marvelous job with their blades, as well.
As perhaps the most famous student of the legendary Benny “The Jet” Urquidez, Cusack is uniquely prepared to square off with Jackie in a way that few big stars are, and it shows. In their initial meeting prior to becoming allies, Huo An and Lucius go head to head in a searing, swift sword duel that sets the pace for everything to come after it. There’s more than a few moments in the film where you may be tempted to ask aloud, “Are you sure you’re in your 60’s, Jackie?”, and Cusack handles his Gladius like a seasoned master.
Once Adrien Brody steps into the heat of things in the third act, the film switches up its ‘epic mode’ to 11 with a sweeping battle sequence in the desert, but it also manages to bring everything down to a micro level showing the villainous Tiberius as a masterful swordsman in his own right. Brody previously took on alien hunters in 2010’s “Predators” and shows himself to be just as sure-handed with a sword as our two heroes.
Hardly the kind of villain merely sitting on the sidelines while his henchmen do his dirty work for him, Tiberius wants the pleasure of taking down the good guys all for himself. He gives Huo An a serious run for his money in a final graphic battle of bladesmanship; though you really have to wonder how he’s not on the verge of dehydrating with that wolf’s fur covering his armor in the middle of the Gobi desert!
As both a historical epic and an East-meets-West action-adventure, “Dragon Blade” is a flick to break out the big bucket of popcorn for. With an abundance of breath-taking sword fights and large scale battle sequences, the added star power of John Cusack and Adrien Brody, and a few pleasant reminders of Jackie’s superb singing ability on the soundtrack, this is a trip to the Silk Road that you won’t want to miss!
- Mel Gibson was rumored to portray Lucius before John Cusack was cast.
- John Cusack was originally trained in kickboxing by Benny “The Jet” Urquidez for the film “Say Anything…”, and got to display what he’d learned in a fight scene with Don “The Dragon” Wilson. Cusack continued training and currently holds the rank of sixth degree black belt in Benny’s martial art, Ukidokan. Benny has also worked with Cusack as a stunt/fight coordinator on “War, Inc.” “The Contract”, “Con-Air”, and “Grosse Point Blanke”, as well as “Dragon Blade”.
- At a budget of US$65 million, “Dragon Blade” is the most expensive Chinese language film to date.