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Review: Dragon Wars

dragon_wars_cov.jpgYear: 2007
Director: Hyung-rae Shim
Starring: Jason Behr, Amanda Brooks, Robert Forster
Kaboom Review Action Movie Rating: 55

Plot
A man tries to save a woman from getting sacrificed to an evil dragon, and then from sacrificing herself to a good dragon. And lots of monsters attack Los Angeles.

Quick Review
Dragon Wars is director Hyung-rae Shim’s ambitious attempt to globalize the Korean film industry, and this film has segments that hold up amazingly well to more extravagant films. There are some surprisingly effective visual effects and action. The story makes sense, kind of. The pace is crisp enough. But the bland acting, shattered premises, and the stupidity of some of the scenes pulls this film down considerably.

Full Review
I had high hopes for Dragon Wars based on the action-packed previews, but a short run in theaters and abysmal reviews wiped out any expectations I had for the film. I planned to suffer through this film, even more so than normal because I had run out of beer to soften the pain. At times I felt like I really needed that beer, but at other times I was amazed at how riveting the film was.

But let’s get the painful part over first. In many places, Dragon Wars is just plain stupid. The story, set in dragon_wars_1.jpgmodern Los Angeles, revolves around a 500-year-old Korean myth involving two dragons, one good and one evil. Supposedly, the good dragon (Imoogi) has been so good that he gets to evolve into a super dragon and go to dragon heaven. But there is a catch. In order to ascend, he is supposed to get some sort of blue light ball of goodness from a woman living on Earth. And of course, the evil dragon (Buraki) wants the blue ball as well, presumably to go kill stuff. But when you think about it, this doesn’t make much sense, because the evil dragon could surely go kill stuff already, so I must have missed something here. Anyway, there is a man involved as well. He is supposed to protect the woman from getting eaten by the evil dragon. Well, according to the myth, 500 years ago the man and the woman jumped off a cliff instead of allowing the evil dragon to eat the woman. And now, 500 years later in Los Angeles, all these characters are reborn to try again. Whew.

Okay, I admit that this doesn’t sound so stupid, and it isn’t. What is stupid though, is how this story unfolds in modern Los Angeles. The first half of the film is filled with broken scenes, actions that make no sense, and a general sloppiness that leaves you shaking your head in confusion. Let me give you some noteworthy dragon_wars_2.jpgexamples. Buruki, the massive evil serpent dragon, is apparently a ninja dragon that can apparate at will anywhere in Los Angeles. Poof! There is it! And poof, there it goes, with only a few people spotting it. And poor Buruki is the second dumbest dragon I have ever seen in a film. For much of the film it searches Los Angeles, with the help of an army of supporters, for Sarah (Amanda Brooks), who is the woman with the blue light inside her somewhere. On several occasions Buruki corners Sarah. With its prey cornered, what would you expect it to do? That’s right! Eat her! Of course. Instead, Buruki kinds of just sits there and watches Sarah and Ethan (her protector, played by Jason Behr) run away. Huh? Apparently he couldn’t eat her yet because it would have ended the movie too soon.

And this sort of disconnect between the action and any sense of logic continues throughout the film. At one point two FBI agents drive into a besieged Los Angeles and within seconds find Sarah. Wow. That is impressive. In another scene, an FBI agent tries to shoot Sarah from point blank. Ethan jumps in front of the bullet to save her. He then topples to the ground, shot, or so I thought. But two minutes later he gets up, dragon_wars_3.jpgunfazed by the bullet. Did it hit him? It if missed, how did it miss Sarah? Where did the damn bullet go? This sort of stuff happens constantly, and it shatters any sort of tension in the film.

But that’s not all. A clunky script and lifeless acting deaden any life in the non-action segments of the film. Main actors Jason Behr and Amanda Brooks never find any chemistry, and sleepwalk through the movie. On a good note, Robert Forster, who plays a reincarnated Korean master dedicated to helping Ethan protect Sarah, does deserve some credit for his rich, resonant voice. But it’s shallow praise when that is the sole compliment I can come up with for the cast.

With all the negativity, it’s easy to dismiss Dragon Wars as an awful film. But just when you’re ready to write the thing off, Dragon Wars does a 360-degree turn once the action starts. In spite of its low budget, this film has some top rate visual effects and action scenes. Buruki and Imoogi, the two serpent dragons, are effective and convincing throughout the film. Two scenes, in particular, define this film and save it from the dragon dung dragon_wars_4.jpgheap. The first is an amazing battle in downtown Los Angeles between the forces of Buruki and the US army. An army of black-clad ancient warriors, massive rocket-firing turtles, and screaming pteranodons attack the city in search of Sarah (who Buruki found, forgot to eat, and then lost again). The US Army aims to drive them off, and the resultant battle is a drawn-out yet thrilling visual arts extravaganza. To be fair, some scenes repeat too frequently and the action doesn’t connect well to the story, but it’s a visual treat and surprisingly entertaining. The second scene is the movie’s climax, which brings together all the forces for one last showdown. While the surrounding portions of the scene are forgettable, the battle between the two dragons is a wild, inspired, and satisfying end to the film.

Other factors work to the film’s advantage as well. Choppiness aside, the film has decent pace. The music is excellent, and the sound deserves special mention as well. The babes and hunks rating doesn’t fare as well, though. Both Behr and Brooks are decidedly average in the looks department. Nothing noteworthy here.

This is a tough film to make a final call on, but the strong and creative action scenes were so surprising and enjoyable that I found myself satisfied at the end of the film. Sure, there are major problems with the film, but for a first international effort by Hyung-rae Shim, there are enough good things going on that the film is worth watching if you are a fan of action movies.

Fun Fact
Visionary director Hyung-rae Shim is one of the leading comedians in Korea.

Score
Pace: 55
Plot: 38
Action: 64
Consistent Premise: 20
Script/Quotes: 21
Characters: 33
Acting: 29
Villain: 47
Body Count: 78
Babes: 59
Hunks: 58
Explosions: 77
Special Effects: 82
Stunts: 50
Ending: 68

Overall: 55 (Solid in some spots, awful in other spots)

Review: Death Race

death_race_cov.jpgYear: 2008
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Starring: Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Tyrese Gibson, Natalie Martinez, Ian McShane
Kaboom Review Action Movie Rating: 67

Plot
A framed convict attempts to earn his freedom by winning the prison’s deadly automobile races.

Quick Review
While Death Race doesn’t come close to action-film greatness, the film does a solid job with its races, spins a decent story, and has sufficient acting to hold things together. There is a lot to like here. The film exceeds expectations in every way. But there just isn’t enough meat to Death Race to carry the film to any sort of excellence: the story lacks depth and breadth; the action is limited in deathrace_1.jpgscope. Still, Death Race is a winner worth watching, and deserves credit for staying within itself nicely.

Full Review
Death Race is not Shakespeare, but it never pretends to be. This is a film with a simple, tight mission: impress audiences with violent, bloody auto races wrapped in the thinnest of plots. Suprisingly, though, Death Race holds up well for its 90-minute run.

The heart of the film—check that—nearly all of the film, is its races. For the most part these are solid action sequences: creative, well executed, and entertaining. At times, however, things do get a bit repetitive. Cars zoom around the penitentiary track trying to blow each other to bits, and there are perhaps a hundred shots of guns firing and cars getting peppered with shells. But this weakness aside, there is a lot to like about the action in Death Race. Visually, the film is set a hard, metallic sheen—filled with stark blues and grays—that gives the film a rough, brutal edge to it. And make no mistake: Death Race is not a film for the kiddies. This film exalts in deathrace_3.jpgits R-rating. We’ve got decapitations, occasional gore, and plenty of swearing. The film moves along briskly, sparing only minimal time to establish the plot and hold the story together. Scenes are tight, well shot, and crisply edited. Visual effects are convincing and effective. Even during the short time the actors aren’t racing, they tend to be fighting with table trays, fists, and wrenches. These scenes are well executed, with the same brutal edge that runs throughout the film. To the film’s credit, most of the action sequences make sense, and advance the story in logical steps. I was a bit confused about the logic behind the rules and strategy of the first two races, but all in all, the action in Death Race is above expectations. Kudos!

While I was pleasantly surprised with the action, I did in all honestly expect that to be the only strong point of the film. I fully expected the plot to be a disaster, and for Death Race to be an illogical stream of destruction. So I was even more surprised that Death Race has a plot, and get this: it makes sense! Sure, it’s a simple, barebones story, and sure, it’s the tired and worn “family-deathrace_2.jpggets-killed-and-hero-seeks-revenge” dynamic that we’ve seen over and over again. In short, Jensen Ames (played by Jason Statham)—a loving husband, doting father, and hard worker—gets framed for the murder of his wife so that he can be brought to prison to take the place of the recently deceased Frankenstein, a legendary driver in the Death Race TV show. All this happens in the first ten minutes of the movie, and before you know it the races have begun. Zoom zoom. But on the whole, for the scant time the movie spends on developing the story, it does manage to effectively set up the context for the races and help center the viewer on the main character. You find that you both like and care about Jensen Ames.

So, the action is good and the story is sufficient, so surely the acting and the script pull Death Race into the garbage heap, yes? Well, once again Death Race can surprise you. This isn’t to say that the acting is good, but it does well enough to not detract from the film. And this isn’t to say that the script is good—it isn’t—but you really don’t need much of a script for a movie that is mostly about cars going around in circles. Jason Statham will not win an Oscar for his work, which mainly consists of glaring at enemies. However, he succeeds in striking a nice balance between likability and toughness. He pulls off his limited lines with enough conviction. He gets some decent help from the supporting actors. In particular, Joan Allen does a respectable job as the prison’s evil warden, and Ian death_race_4.jpgMcShane puts a nice soft spin on Coach, one of Jensen’s car crew. Dragging down the film’s acting are the lifeless Natalie Martinez, who plays Jensen’s co-pilot, and the wooden Tyrese Gibson, who plays Jensen’s arch rival on the racecourse.

As dull as Martinez’s acting is, she is not necessarily a bad choice for her role. She is a voluptuous Selma Hayek look-alike who manages to hold up the babe rating of Death Race on her own. For eye candy from the male side of the cast, Jason Statham is clearly in amazing shape, but ends up average overall with his bland face. The rest of the male cast is decent enough to put the film into the positive.

As decent as all the elements in Death Race are, however, the film doesn’t come close to action-film greatness. The film does a solid job with its races, spins a decent story, and has sufficient acting to hold things together. There is a lot to like here, and the film exceeded my expectations in every way. But there just isn’t enough meat to Death Race to carry the film to any sort of excellence: the story lacks depth and breadth and the action is limited in scope. Still, Death Race is a winner worth watching, and deserves credit for staying within itself nicely.

Fun Fact
The movie was filmed in only 50 days.

Score
Pace: 77
Plot: 46
Action: 62
Consistent Premise: 67
Script/Quotes: 31
Characters: 52
Acting: 59
Villain: 59
Body Count: 53
Babes: 77
Hunks: 62
Explosions: 56
Special Effects: 81
Stunts: 54
Ending: 67

Overall: 67

[tags]Death Race, movie review, Paul W.S. Anderson, Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Tyrese Gibson, Natalie Martinez, Ian McShane[/tags]