As commander of the Silk Road Protection Squad dutiful and dedicated Huo An (Jackie Chan) tries to maintain peace among the ethnically diverse tribes along the most important trade route in the world at the Northwestern border of Han Dynasty China. Yet political skullduggery sees him falsely accused of smuggling and exiled with his men to Wild Geese Gate. There Huo An meets Lucius (John Cusack), commander of a rogue Roman legion attempting to help Publius (Jozef Liu Waite), child heir to the Consul, escape his power-hungry older brother Tiberius (Adrien Brody). Although wary of each other at first, Huo An and Lucius forge a firm friendship. As Tiberius approaches with an army of one-hundred thousand soldiers they join forces against seemingly insurmountable odds.
In Asia Dragon Blade, not to be confused with the like-named Chinese CGI animated feature, was the biggest hit of 2015 cementing Jackie Chan's status as one of world's highest-grossing film stars. The reception was more muted in English-speaking countries despite the inclusion of Oscar winner Adrien Brody and fellow Hollywood star John Cusack for added international appeal. Indeed the version released on these shores runs around half an hour shorter than the Chinese cut. Along with several curtailed subplots Step Up 3D (2010) and You're Next (2011) star Sharni Vinson is mysteriously M.I.A. from the British release. On the other hand by all accounts the absence of the original framing story with Hong Kong actors Vanness Wu and Karena Lam as present day archaeologists is no great loss.
Writer-director Daniel Lee, continuing his recent run of sprawling historical epics in the wake of White Vengeance (2011), 14 Blades (2010) and Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon (2008), does not break any new ground here. The pageantry and wire fu action seem pretty familiar especially for seasoned fans of Chinese action cinema. Yet the core theme of upholding peace between different cultures and striving to find common ground resonates now more than ever. As the doggedly decent Huo An, Jackie Chan's appealing everyman underdog persona achieves almost mythic status in some stirring scenes. As producer and action director the veteran martial arts star showcases his skill with physicalizing ideas most notably in a sort of cultural duel where the Han Chinese and Roman soldiers show off their swordplay styles. It is a sequence that harks back to his youth in the Peking Opera. The cheesy but sincere script indulges in a lot of macho male bonding and trite philosophizing about the futility of vengeance and ephemeral nature of peace yet its heart is in the right place. Indeed unlike a great many comparable CGI heavy historical epics at least Dragon Blade has a heart. Lee's over-amped melodrama goes for poetry and emotion rather than blood and thunder.
Jackie's sprightly choreography ensures no lack of spectacle but the plot stresses mutual respect between warriors and does not try to mark one culture as superior to another. It is pure Boy's Own fluff but charming nonetheless. For long-time genre buffs there is an undeniable frisson to the presence of honest-to-god big Hollywood stars and grandiose production values (the film had one of the biggest budgets in Chinese cinema history) in a Jackie Chan film. While Adrien Brody gives it the full-tilt villainy, John Cusack is miscast but gamely enters into the spirit of the film. Plus with Chan choreographing he gets a rare chance to show off his fight skills. Yes, it is the duel we have all been waiting for: J.C vs J.C. If a handful of the largely unknown Caucasian supporting cast are a trifle hammy, several Asian stars offer sterling support. These include Korean boy band star Choi Si-Won as a duplicitous ally, Xiao Yang and Wang Tai-Li a.k.a. recording duo The Chopstick Brothers as keepers of Wild Geese Gate, Sammy Hung son of stalwart Jackie collaborator and legendary actor-director-choreographer in his own right Sammo Hung, Mika Wang as Huo An's saintly wife (her screen time trimmed in the English release) and most impressively Lin Peng as Lady Cold Moon, a ferocious tribal warrior woman who betrothes herself to our hero after, in a typical Jackie Chan comic set-piece, he accidentally removes her veil. When she disrobes Jackie does a spit-take! You would not see that happen in a Ridley Scott historical epic which is why, for all its Hollywood trappings, Dragon Blade remains an amiably eccentric Hong Kong romp at heart.
Where Daniel Lee flounders is the lack of cohesive storytelling though it is hard to tell how much of this is due to the international re-edit. Lee clearly relishes the chance to paint on a broader canvas yet employs hackneyed storytelling devices that fumble key plot points. Even so the underlining themes and emotions hit home in some affecting scenes notably Huo An's climactic encounter with Lucius. Boasting a remarkable body-count and willingness to kill off sympathetic characters, including one shock death you would never expect to see in a Jackie Chan film, Dragon Blade revels in bloody tragedy in a manner unseen since the heyday of Shaw Brothers director Chang Cheh.