Sunday, September 16, 2007

REVIEW: Dragon Wars

Assigning a numerical rating is the hardest part of writing any one of these reviews, and even harder to explain. That's why, when an example comes along that offers an easy insight as to how I arrive at these numbers, I feel a certain obligation to reveal it. So, then: "Dragon Wars," a hugely successful Korean-made (but American-set and English-speaking) giant-monster blockbuster, features a sequence in which a gigantic monster serpent easily the size of several city blocks coils it's way up a skyscraper and does battle with a fleet of armed Apache attack choppers - NO MOVIE WHERE THAT HAPPENS CAN GO BELOW A "5." It's that simple. There could be NOTHING else of value or worth in the entire enterprise and it would STILL be at least average, because it has a giant snake wrapped around a building fighting helicopters.

There's a period in the 2nd act when "Dragon Wars" achieves, if only for a brief time, a kind of transcendant greatness that some overall "better" films can only dream of: Buraki, the above-mentioned giant snake, wraps himself around the above-mentioned Los Angeles skyscraper. Down below in the streets, a combined force of SWAT troops, LAPD cops, Army troops and a squad of tanks engaged in a pitched battle with the Atrox Warriors - Buraki-worshipping evil soldiers clad in gleaming silver armor, astride dinosaur-like steeds and backed up by waves of lumbering slug/lizard behemoths with cannons mounted on their backs. Above, a flock of winged, dragon-like Bulcos engage in dizzying dogfights with attack-choppers. Fireballs are spewed. Giant monsters throw rows of cars about like piles of dry leaves. Swords clash with bullets. Monster-launched missiles tear through concrete.

It is, all by itself, instantly one of the single greatest scenes of monsters attacking a major city in motion picture history - fit to be displayed alongside "King Kong's" New York rampage, "Godzilla's" first seige of Tokyo or the genre-defining attack of "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms" Rhedosaurus. It's a revelation, a symphony of sights genre fans have been waiting to see for as long as they've BEEN genre fans. "Transformers," a far, FAR less delightful offering of giant-creatures tearing up urbania, WISHES it could be this portion of "Dragon Wars." If the rest of the film was able to measure up to this one glorious stretch of it's running time, we'd be looking at a modern classic right now.

Well... it doesn't, and so we're not. Truth be told, there are HUGE parts to the film that are laughably goofy, much of it borne from a palpable language barrier between the Korean filmmakers and their primarily American cast. It's labyrinthine, destiny-centered, flashback-ladden plot makes only the barest semblance of sense. And so we're presented in-whole a kind of raw-chaos mashup of elements: One-part gloriously-realized fantasy-infused creature feature, one-part unintentional-camp train wreck resembling nothing so much as one of the lesser "Highlander" installments. And yet, like some strange accident of evolution, the ridiculous result WORKS. It darts back and forth between hillariously-awful action-movie stock scenes and jaw-droppingly awesome giant-monster action, and BOTH paths are hugely entertaining in their own way - go for the dragons, stay for the howler dialogue and mind-bending exposition.

Some six full years in the making by Korean comedy icon turned FX-film groundbreaker Hyung Rae Shim (late of the far inferior "Yongarry" remake years ago,) the film does feature an interesting (if insanely over-complicated) setup. The central plot revolves around ancient Korea and The Imoogi, a species of king-sized snake monsters who wish to evolve into proper Dragons (of the flying, ribbon-shaped Asian variety) and can only do so via the sacrifice of specially-destined young virgins. There's also an evil Imoogi, Buraki, who wants to devour the gal and claim Dragon-hood for himself and has enlisted an army of followers to help him out (exactly WHY a seemingly-immortal super-serpent NEEDS help is a little vauge.) The whole operation hit a snag 500 years ago when a warrior fell in love with his sacrifice-to-be charge, and the two did themselves in rather than submit to the attacking Buraki. They've both been reincarnated as 20-somethings in modern day L.A., and right around the time destiny rears it's head again Buraki and Company are already about the business of tearing the place apart looking for The Girl. Most of this information is imparted to us by Robert Forster (!!!) as a reincarnated, shape-shifting Korean warrior monk who owns an antique shop. Really.

Despite the central presence of the big-bad Buraki, "Dragon Wars" has less in common with Godzilla than it does with the kitchen-sink lunacy of the Ray Harryhausen "Sinbad" films - right down the dizzying menagerie of beasties and the one-damn-thing-after-another plotting. In a way, it's somewhat unfortunate that the bulk of "Dragon Wars" media blitz has focused on older audiences. While it's true that grownup monster geeks and fans of "what the HELL??" moviemaking will likely find a new guilty pleasure here, the real proper audience for this is kids. Fast-paced, not terribly gruesome and stuffed to the gills with monsters and magic, this film will be MANA to any young lover of monsters/dragons/dinosaurs for whom wooden acting and psyche-melting dialogue are infinitely forgivable in the face of colossal monster battles or armored, dragon-riding baddies charging against a phalanx of tanks.


Had this film existed when I was around 7, no force on Earth could've kept me from watching it into memorization. To the current generation of film geeks this will be an instant "camp" cult hit... but for the NEXT generation it's going to be a seminal title - non-monster-related parts that don't hold up notwithstanding. At the showing I attended, a pair of young boys sat a few rows ahead of me along with an older woman (probably a grandmother to one one or both of them); and while the grownups (myself included) were laughing like hyenas for much of it, these kids were enraptured. Got a kid in your family that collects toy Dinosaurs or seeks out Godzilla flicks on TV? Take him or her to see this, you'll be their hero.

Folks, I'll be honest. I've had a massive downer of a week. Crappy time at work. Rainy weather. Just a big long "man does adulthood tend to SUCK" time... and "Dragon Wars" was exactly the tonic I needed. A huge-scale giant-monster B-movie complete with MST3K-worthy acting for laughs and extended sequences of fantasy/creature warfare for genuine thrills. I was laughing, I was applauding and, at times, I may as well have been ten years old again, amazed to be seeing Monster Movie scenes that I thought would only ever exist in my dreams. I'm not sure (though I'd hope) if director Shim's human characters would be less spectacularly dopey when his crew speaks the same language as his cast, but he's proven himself a prodigy at arranging sequences of giant monster carnage - and he gave me MORE than I wanted and EXACTLY what I needed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10