There’s a laughable scene in the original live-action He-Man and the Masters of the Universe film when villainous Skeletor first warps into our universe and marches his stiff low-budget army down a suburban American street. That once-forgotten imagery is what invaded my mind while watching Korea’s most expensive film, Dragon Wars, or D-Wars for short. Marketed as a complex special-effects masterpiece and written to appeal to European audiences — but succeeding at neither — D-Wars is a jumbled mess of an amateur filmmaker’s creativity and ambition gone horrifically awry.
Director Hyung-rae Shim fated his attempt to boost Korean cinema into B-movie status the day he cast Jason Behr of Roswell fame in the lead role. Behr, known for his uncanny ability to show zero emotion and speak in perfect monotone, is rapidly taking over the B-movie hero reigns from C. Thomas Howell. In D-Wars, Behr perfectly plays himself and fails to share any chemistry with Amanda Brooks, the nearly 20-year old woman carrying the Yeouijoo, a magical power either a good or evil Imoogi (re: giant mythological Korean snakes) requires to ascend to heaven as a dragon every 500 years.
When humans are hogging screen time, D-Wars makes most B-movies look Oscar worthy. Behr and Brooks’ cardboard acting creates the illusion they’re dubbing over their own Korean voices, yet they aren’t. The main villain, whose name is so important that I can’t or feel the need to remember it, looks and acts like he stepped off the Power Rangers set. Even Robert Forster looks bored and there to collect a paycheck only in the role of a reincarnated mentor to Behr’s character. Lest not forget the villain’s stiff Skeletor-influenced army walking all around Los Angeles and its outskirts without raising nary an eyebrow from millions of residents.
The only saving grace in D-Wars is a roughly 10-minute all out war between the military and dragon army in downtown Los Angeles. Even though the dragon, snake and other creature effects are clearly low-budget CGI, there’s a lot of action and intensity that manages, on occasion, to outperform Bay’s Transformers brawl in the same location. Where Bay would show brief split second snippets from a confrontation, Shim wouldn’t shy away from focusing on a sequence for an extended period of time without the camera jittering to induce nausea.
For the few minutes of fun when dragons show the U.S. military who the real boss is, there’s many more minutes of convoluted twists on Korean Imoogi legends, gaping plot holes, and even a sit down for coffee in-between two giant snake attacks. I’m sorry, but if a snake the length of a football field is able to track me down no matter where I am, sitting down in a coffee shop is the last thing on my mind. Apparently hiring a script consultant was the last thing on Shim’s mind.
I’m all for Korean filmmakers trying to gain exposure for their films around the world, but I don’t think trying to replicate what more experienced and financed filmmakers have already done is the right way to go about it. By trying to create a special effects’ extravaganza set in Los Angeles, Hyung-rae Shim has unintentionally tossed his unique original idea about Korean mythology in with countless made for TV science fiction films. Like those, it will be forgotten minutes after the credits roll.
Sony presents Dragon Wars on Blu-ray Disc with an AVC MPEG-4 encoded 1080p transfer averaging between 20 and 30 mbps. Due to the use of extensive interior green screen combined with raw outdoor footage, inconsistency in detail and grain appears from one set piece to the next. Select outdoor scenes with bright blue skies tend to draw out the most grain, while close-ups are noticeably darker and more indicative of clean high-def. The best looking shots are those where the camera is zoomed in on the CGI dragons and beasts, fitting since those scenes are the only ones worth the price of admission.
Sound design plays an important role in D-Wars given the extensive screen time scaly creatures are given. True to Spielberg’s Velociraptors, each dragon or beast screeches a high pitched sound so unnerving it’s almost difficult to take in large doses. In the film’s final act, this is precisely what happens.
I found the Dolby TrueHD uncompressed 5.1 audio track had to be turned up a few notches to hit the same decibels as high budget films, and in doing this, the dialogue started to drown amongst the aggressive creature and other effects noises. Despite this, one thing the mix can never be faulted for is being too passive. If you like your subwoofer to rumble and surrounds to come alive nonstop when the action arrives, D-Wars delivers.
For a film that took five years to make, there’s not much in the way of making-of material on this release. A single featurette, storyboard comparisons and conceptual art are all Sony felt necessary to include, or all that was made available to them.
5,000 Years in the Making (18:10) — There’s an option above the special features to turn on subtitles which I found out the hard way should have been defaulted to on. Shim spends a good portion of this featurette talking, in Korean, about his influences and motives for making the film. A small portion is spent on digital effects and sound design, each of which could have easily been their own one-hour documentaries given the effects complexity.
Storyboard Comparisons (11:19 HD) — In this straightforward featurette, the screen splits in three to show the storyboard, animatic and final composite shot from five action sequences.
Conceptual Art Gallery (HD) — Exactly 50 conceptual art images can be perused either automatically via a slideshow or individually at the viewer’s discretion. It functions like an elaborate Powerpoint presentation.
The mere fact that one of my colleagues had never heard of Dragon Wars until I told him I was working on a review is proof enough this theatrically released monster flick is dead on arrival. If you can stomach over an hour of Jason Behr and ancient Korean armies in tin armor, then a pleasant eye and ear candy payoff in downtown Los Angeles makes a brief rental of this Blu-ray Disc worth the effort.
- Score: 6
- The same crowd that loves all kajillion Dynasty Warriors games will probably love this movie. The rest of us? It’s a crap shoot.