Those born in the days of $200 million blockbuster movies brimming with front-to-back CGI spectacle may be unaware that once there was a time when fantasy flicks delivered much less than promised. I’m not talking about such niceties as a solid plot, witty dialogue or sharp acting; plenty of modern epics fail on those terms. But you can go to the likes of Transformers and be certain that you’ll get all the ear-popping, eye-wrenching action you can handle. Not so much in the ’50s and ’60s, when sci-fi and horror were largely ghetto genres. Budgets were slim, and ambitions were scaled back on these “B” pictures. If a trailer promised destruction on a grand scale, it was very likely that it would be confined to the final reel. The 70 minutes leading up to that fiery, monster-ridden climax would be a lot of talk…talky, talky, talk.
I found myself thinking in those terms after watching Dragon Wars, the American release title for the South Korean hit monster movie D-War. As I previously noted, Dragon Wars has one of the most ass-kicking trailers I’ve seen, promising massive monster-on-military action. And while I think it largely succeeded on that level, it reminded me very much of the early Ray Harryhausen films, which saved most of their thrills (and therefore their scant budgets) for the final third.
Dragon Wars is an odd duck for an Asian monster flick; aside from an expository sequence set in ancient Korea, the majority of it is an English-language picture with an American cast. Not an especially good American cast mind you: for the most part they manage little more than to hit their marks and spew their admittedly atrocious dialogue. Jason Behr, whom I understand was a regular on Roswell, was supposed to be a top reporter for a CNN-like TV news outfit, but came off more like The Daily Show‘s Demetri Martin doing one of his “Trendspotting” riffs. (I was amused both by the small cubicle farm used to represent a major news organization, and by the fact that their ace reporter would be allowed to go on the air with a huge mystical pendant constantly hanging midway down his chest.) Robert Forster, who’s been in approximately one million movies and TV shows, at least looked like he was having a good time as the reincarnated shaman who kept showing up just long enough to keep
Demetri Jason from being eaten.
The first third of the film was spent explaining the semi-coherent plot. We were told that every 500 years, a great serpent is rewarded with the power to become a celestial dragon. (I was not sure how the serpents choose which one is so anointed. I presume rock-paper-scissors would not be a viable option.) A girl born with a draconic tattoo carries within her some sort of mystical hoohah that the serpent swallows when she turns twenty. Unfortunately, back in 1507, the evil serpent Buraki sent his army against the village in which she lived, in hopes of gaining ultimate power. Furthermore, the young hero meant to protect her long enough to take her to the place of sacrifice falls in love instead, and the twosome forsake their destiny, instead falling to their deaths when Buraki chases them over a cliff. In the present-day, both the lovers and their wise mentor have been reincarnated in Los Angeles, but Buraki has arisen to claim its prize.
While we did get one special-effects-laden flashback sequence set in 16th-century Korea in which the sinister forces, resembling nothing less than the Gungan Grand Army of The Phantom Menace, storm the village, most of the first hour of the running time was spent listening to a lot of earnest, boring talk about prophecy and mystical hoohahs. Every once in a while Buraki put in a brief appearance, but it’s surprising just how few people noticed or cared that there was a 100-foot snake zipping around L.A.
Once the film’s final third kicked in, the thing really started to cook. It was still impossible to actually give a shit about any of the characters, but damn, Dragon Wars actually delivered its share of monstrous mayhem. There were perhaps ten full minutes of dragonettes and helicopters dueling in the skies while tanks squared off against missile-toting lizards and soldiers mounted on velociraptors.
Buraki was a pretty nifty beast, particularly in a couple of money shots. In one, the colossal serpent slithered down a packed city street, explosively sluicing through traffic. In another, it wound its way around a skyscraper in pursuit of our heroes, only to be chopped off the building in a fusillade of firepower. There have been few giant snakes in giant monsterdom; the only one that comes to mind is Toho Studio’s Manda*, itself something of a traditional Asian dragon. Buraki was a worthy entry, even if he did rather patiently wait for his prey to escape most of the time.
There’s a lot of silliness, both intentional and otherwise in Dragon Wars. For example, I had to laugh when the grand army of evil issued forth from the infamous Bronson Canyon, the L.A. County location used by every low-budget film in need of a cave mouth. (I once spent some time there myself.) It was, by no objective means, a good film. But for the final reel, it fulfilled its own destiny as an entertaining throwback to the B-movies of old.
*Update: My friend Mark points out that I was remiss to leave out Reptilicus, Denmark’s most famous movie monster. I feel chagrined, as that film is a favorite guilty pleasure.