Dragon Dynasty (Review)
Welcome to the second run of the team-up between TarsTarkas.NET and FantasyFilmscapes.com known as The Dragon Slayers. Today, we will be taking on the 2006 SciFi Channel original movie Dragon Dynasty, because we can. The original team-up was Dragon. Also, before we begin, check out this cool graphic whipped up to celebrate the event:
As usual, the beginning section is co-written between Tars Tarkas and Iain Norman, and then the movie is divided into 15 minute chunks, alternating between each other, where our contributions are color coded. Iain’s version on his site is located here
Dragon Dynasty is one of the more recent SciFi Channel Original movies to air. Like many of their other films this ones features some big CGI monsters and a basic chase and hunt monster scenario – in this case the settings range from China to Italy in the late 13th century A.D. Usually SciFi puts about $1 million USD each into their ‘originals’ and uses Bulgaria for locations because it costs next to nothing to produce a film there. While not sure of the exact nature of the Bulgarian tax setup it is probably made quite affordable for foreign products to use the country in their shoots by way of tax credits in return for employing local actors and related industries. They usually drag over a few actors who are looking to make house payments and sleepwalk through their roles, but the supplemental local actors have been known to do bang up jobs.
Unfortunately SciFi’s previous attempts at period pieces have been dragged down by poor scripts and truly terrible costuming and props. Generally you can count on SciFi to produce a poorly acted kitchen sink sort of film that, while low on quality, is usually viewable (in a cheese-ball sort of way). The difference with Dragon Dynasty is that it is actually extremely enjoyable – in fact even good in spots. If you’ve seen Dragon Storm (another SciFi production) then the basic idea and formula of this flick will seem familiar, albeit with some fresher trappings. In fact it’s the same formula used on most SciFi original films. There are three essential factors for these things…
- 1. There must be an incredibly unlikely scenario in which a male hero is faced with a monster or two.
- 2. There must be a friendly Asian who knows kung fu and brings gunpowder.
- 3. There must be an attractive young woman who’s just had her family killed by said monster’s and is desperate for revenge, to the point of following around the scruffy lead into incredibly dangerous and completely avoidable situations.
For SciFi the response to their ‘original’ movies has been positive to the point of having quite the slate for 2007. Below are just a few of their many projects and the ones we most anticipate getting our reviewing talons into.
- KING ARTHUR & THE ORDER OF THE DRAGON
- RIDDLE OF THE SPHINX
- SHERLOCK HOLMES & THE BANSHEE
- ODYSSEUS & THE ISLE OF MISTS
- CRY OF THE WINGED SERPENT
As these films have high ratings, and consistently good ratings on reruns, they are pretty much a built in staple of SciFi Channel life, like rice in Asia or pasta in Italy, to use the two countries in today’s movie as examples.
Another special feature of Dragon Dynasty is that it strives to teach as well as entertain. By giving us a nice story involving Marco Polo’s trip to China, the viewer is drawn into history alive on the small screen. Sure, Marco Polo suddenly has a brother who never existed, a brother who looks zero percent Italian. And despite China being ruled by Kublai Khan of the Mongol Hordes, instead someone who isn’t Kublai Khan is the Chinese Emperor. Finally, Marco Polo returned with a magical stone that released two pterodactyls, not two dragons like the movie suggests. Once you ignore those few flaws, the film is very enjoyable. Surely, Dragon Dynasty will get children talking about Marco Polo, in non-swimming pool related matters. The movie was so well received, that the Weinsteins named their DVD import label after the film, despite this film being an American production filmed in Europe that they had no control over.
It’s now that special time in which we like to introduce the cast. That brave pack of souls desperate enough for a paycheck to survive dodgy sets, genre directors and no doubt, dubious Bulgarian vino.
Iain at the keyboard, I’ll start things off as we settle into China, 1284 A.D. Marco and his posse have just concluded a tasty trade deal with the Emperor of China and are kicking back with a few fireworks while a some extras do a dragon dance (you’ve seen them, big paper dragons on poles, at your local Chinese New Year celebrations). But the adviser to the Emperor, Shang Sei, isn’t so hyped about the Westerners. He believes they are bad for China. Sort of like the latest reincarnation of the flu, only he has more than acupuncture planned as a cure…
Shang releases two dragons from a sacred Dragon Stone. These are not your average peace loving, river dwelling Chinese dragons. Rather a Red Dragon of Fire and a Black Dragon of Night, both with bad tempers and a penchant for setting things on alight. Shang then plants the Stone in a pile of gifts for the Italians. The dragons home in on the stone and zoom down on the Chinese capital to wreak a little havoc. Amidst all the scrambling we are introduced to Gao Ling. He’s a pretty average chap who showed up with his old dad to watch the celebrations and now has to deal with the fact that his father is pretty much dead. Thank the dragons for that. His last words to Gao are, “protect the treaty”. Meaning of course that Gao must get involved with the Italians as soon as possible so that we have the essential Token Asian Guy as soon as possible.
The dragons continue to swoop around letting off the occasional fireball, while one of the Emperor’s generals makes the stunning observation that, “this is too dangerous”. However the Emperor is a DIY kind of guy and after finding the Dragon Stone takes a stand against the beasts. Mumbling some important sounding words he forces them back into the stone. Actually he said something about Qin (Chin), possibly a passing reference to the first Dynasty of China? An unexplained detail in any case as we now learn from the Emperor that it was Shang behind the attack. In a temple the Emperor beseeches, “The Fathers of the Four Incantations of Peace” to forgive what happened and make things all happy-clappy again. He gives the Stone to Marco encased in an ancient spell cloth. Keeping the cloth on the stone will keep the dragons safely enclosed. Taking the Stone to Italy is also supposed to help things. So the party gears up to leave and Gao shows up wanting to join. After the usual jawing back and forth about a dangerous journey and all, he’s part of the team. Meanwhile outside the city Shang is being chased by Imperial guards on horseback. He is captured and led back to the city. Over to your side Tars.
Never fear, Tars is here! Emperor James Hong yells at Shang Sei for being a traitor to China. It is odd for someone so desperate to defend China from outsiders, a China full of Filipinos that was conquered by Kublai Khan, who was accused of becoming too Chinese by his rivals. Don’t say you never learn anything from these reviews. The Emperor also lets slip that the Europeans have the Dragon Stone, which enrages Shang Sei even more. Shang needs to watch his blood pressure; too much rage can lead to a heart attack or stroke. The Emperor decrees that Shang Sei will be executed at dawn.
The next morning, it’s dawn. Another amazing true historic fact, in ancient China, prisoners were allowed to wear capes right up to the moment they are to be shot by archer firing squad. Also, suddenly everyone is speaking Chinese now, odd as before both the Italians and Chinese were speaking flawless English. Right before the archers fire their arrows, Shang Sei breaks the chains holding his hands, and grabs the executioner right next to him, using him as a human shield to absorb the arrows. The archers reload, giving Shang ample time to just take off the broken handcuffs on him. The archers fire again, but even though they fire in unison, the arrows arrive in single fire, allowing Shang Sei to grab each and every one of them from midair. This is the problems you have when you don’t have 10,000 archers like the Emperor in Hero. Shang then throws them back at each individual archer, piercing them in the chest and killing them. The only person left to oppose him is the captain of the Imperial Guards, who decides that calling for reinforcements is dumb, and just attacks Shang himself. That proves to be a fatal mistake, and Shang kills him with his own sword.
It’s now two weeks later, and Polo and his men have gotten however far someone can get by horse in two weeks from Beijing to Italy. For some reason, all he and his men have to eat is noodles and rice, thus they are sick of it. As a poor student, I can emphasize with having nothing to eat except ramen noodles. Their solution is to go hunt, and four of the men leave to do so. Gao Ling is told to stay behind and watch the horses, and another random guy also stays behind, except he gets the Dragon Stone out to look at it. This proves to be a mistake on his part, as Shang Sei walks up behind him and bashes him over the head, knocking him out and taking the stone. We jump to Kurasawa camera angle mode, as a close-up of Gao’s face reveals he is an untapped fountain of intenseness. Shang walks in behind Gao’s head on frame, and we switch to a long shot with the two combatants on the far sides of the screen. The two rush at each other and proceed to have a kung fu battle, which ends with Shang cheating by using the Force.
In the forest, that klutz Polo manages to scare off all the food, but he and his men are captured by some random tribes people. Random tribes people who look like they are displaced evil prisoners from No Escape. They are armed with a fort and wooden catapults, and bring the four men inside, where the chief ceremoniously spits on each of them. The chief’s assistant is a balding barbarian who looks ridiculous, therefore I mention him. Marco mentions something about a legion of Roman troops who were wiped out by a mysterious tribe hundreds of years ago. As the four men are about to be killed, we see the death pile of a bunch of Roman troops, complete with equipment in spectacular condition for being exposed to the elements for hundreds of years. The barbarians start cheering and jumping around like they are a bunch of Sand People. To continue the Star Wars references, suddenly a hooded Obi-Wan comes strolling up to scare off the Sand People, except Obi-Wan is Gao, and he’s throwing fireworks to spook the barbarians, who are about to surround him until the two dragons attack the barbarian camp! Things explode all over, as the men start their escape and Gao is forced to show off some more martial arts moves with barbarians as opponents. My time is up for now, so I switch it back to Iain.
Thanks Tars, Marco, brave explorer that he is, leads his men into a ravine to hide from the beasties. If there is one thing you can be sure of as an explorer with an animal attack problem… it’s that the creature in question will undoubtedly find you, attack your companions and cause acute leadership issues. The only ones to parish in this event are some random companions who never had names anyway. Marco manages to lob an arrow into one of the dragons, driving it off. But Shang isn’t far away and he’s got an evil grin. Well more of a silly, “I’m actually getting paid to do this”, sort of grin. Marco and co. go back to the barbarian camp, somehow their horses and gear survived to the massacre. Kited out on their usual assortment of weapons and pouches they prepare to leave again. Marco gives the rundown on the situation. They are weeks yet from Italy, the food will run out, they face a massive mountain range and Marco has no clue what to do – cheery.
Marco’s plan, concocted with Giovanni, consists of hoping to find a settlement on the other side of the mountains. Probably the best choice since none of them is capable of hunting, well at least with Marco around. A little map with a moving squiggly line shows up that our party is taking a journey to costly to film. They arrive outside a little mud walled town, only to find that the dragons aren’t dumb and are torching the place. Marco, never one to let sanity get in the way of valor, wants to go help out the poor locals. Inside, people run around, catch on fire and generally things are messy. Two very smart old men open the main gates so that a dragon can shoot a nice plume of fire through them – nice shot, but logic? Moving on, a random chap grabs a sword, cleans off the rust and over the protests of his attractive daughter goes off to fight the dragon. This subplot turns out rather crispy. As sobbing daughter cradles the rather toasted face of dead daddy Marco and co. ride through the gates. Ava is the girl’s name and she’s pissed at the Italians for bringing the dragons.
But, because she is attractive and Marco is single, she has happy enough to tag along with their band. Before they leave the village they head to the underground vault of Ava’s blacksmith father. There Marco, Giovanni and Ava have a powwow and agree that they have to kill the dragons. So they head to the weapons store room and look at the swords. But Giovanni thinks they need something, well, “bigger”. So Gao shows up with a keg of black powder. Dang we almost made it an hour without gunpowder showing up. Gao rigs up some exploding arrows and gives a demonstration. Ava and Marco exchange approval in Italian. Wait a sec! Ava is Italian? How far are we from Italy exactly? It’s not the largest country… So the geography is flaky, oh well. Time for another map sequence and we arrive at a harbor. What sinister things await on the great waters? Well Tars will have to tell you about that.”
Thanks, Iain, as you can see, they traveled from China to Italy on foot in a few weeks, but now need to take a boat from Italy to Italy. It all makes perfect sense, and was explained on that transition map, despite it having no labels or recognizable landmarks. On the vesSei, Ava learns that Marco is single after trying to get Gao to agree with her that Marco is bad, and Marco gets suggested by Giovanni that he should settle down, and nods toward Ava. Also, they are going to Calabria, which is in southern Italy. The actor playing the captain of the ship says the most stereotypical captain command possible when it looks like a storm is coming: “Batten everything down, and check all the hatches!” Keep in mind that the origin of this phrase was centuries after this movie takes place. (The earliest known citation was by John Badcock in Domestic Amusements written 1823.) Now that we’ve fulfilled the educational component of the show, we can continue with the story. Marco and Ava have a chat, and we are subjected to more of the lame George Lucas-esque love story dialogue. Ava is suddenly worried because Marco is not married. Now that her character has flipped 180 degrees, maybe we can get back to the dragons attacking everything and ignore the lame love story phlegm I coughed up last night foresaw.
Marco then spots dragons in the clouds! He tells the captain to brace for attack. When asked “By what?” Marco responds that he doesn’t have time to explain. I will just point out that the sentence he used took longer to utter than just saying “Dragons!” The Dragons attack the boat, shooting what look like photon torpedoes from Star Trek this time. The first shot sets a guy on fire instantly! Have I mentioned I love it when guys are set on fire and start running around during movies? It rules, and this movie is full of it! The dragons keep blasting the ship as our heroes don’t do much of anything except get out of the way of the guys running around while on fire. A rather nice special effects shot is used here where we view from underwater a dragon blasting a stream of fire across the bow of the ship. This earns the movie a gold star for creativity. The dragons set more guys aflame, much to my pleasure, and also manage to set two barrels on fire. These barrels are the ones containing the magic black powder that explodes, so our heroes jump overboard. Let that be a lesson to you: When expecting dragon attacks, don’t store your explosive supplies above deck. The boat explodes and we go to commercial break.
Back from break, it is the next morning, and Marco finds Giovanni and Gao on the shore. He also finds Ava, but she is not breathing. Thanks to the wonders of 13th century CPR, Marco revives her. Some soldiers wander up, Marco greets them, and they smash him upside the head! Poor Marco and his men are carted through the capital of the Calabria region, which I guess is supposed to be Catanzaro. The king that sent Marco is dead, and the king’s brother is now king. I was hoping they’d have an evil king who would imprison Marco for lying about dragons and defrauding the kingdom for money for a trip to China, but instead the king recognizes him and lets them out. Though the king doesn’t believe the dragon stories. Giovanni is eager to see his wife and son, so as he departs, I hand the reigns over to Iain…
Well the ride gets a little less happy at this junction, in fact you could say the carriage of Giovanni’s love life has pretty much crashed. Back at the homestead Giovanni finds that his wife has taken another husband, believing Giovanni to have been long dead. The little boy he left as a babe when he departed for China has now grown – but with no recollection of his real father. Thankfully the dragons specialize in marital problems and show up to incinerate wife, and new hubby as well as a few villages for appetizers. Giovanni rescues his son.
At a meeting of generals Gao and Marco reveal their new plan to deal with the beasties – gunpowder. While Gao mixes up a new batch the explosive goodies Marco takes care of the weapons side of things. A wooden barrel reinforced with iron bands – thus early cannon (not quite as stupid as it sounds, apparently hardwood kegs and casks were used in the early days of gunpowder in Europe). So we have the weapon, through movie logic Marco deducts that the dragons would have headed for a cave and we have the usual, “you can’t come with us”, line thrown at Ava. Thus our party departs to Poseidon’s mouth, the biggest piece of cleft rock around (or the only available Bulgarian quarry, take your pick). Ava of course follows and joins up with the three men (Marco, Giovanni and Gao). Nobody makes a fuss about her sudden appearance, possibly a scene was cut? Anyways the intrepid band of four now makes their way among the rocks. But guess who’s decided to finally show their face again? Shang, master of dark magic, or at least the evil lear. Gao decides to have another bout with Shang and comes off decidedly on the wrong side of the ledger. Giovanni attempts to help but isn’t doing much. Meanwhile Ava and Marco get off a shot at one of the dragons but it doesn’t seem to faze the creature. It comes roaring out and toasts Giovanni. Shang then guts Gao. How’d this get a PG rating exactly? Not that I’m complaining mind you… a little ketchup on the camera can be a tasty thing. Back to Tars for the last dash to the end of the movie.
Thanks, Iain, we continue with most of the cast now dead, except Marco, Ava, and the evil Shang Sei. Also, the two dragons. But not for long, as Marco sets off the gunpowder gun and blasts the ceiling, causing a landslide, with rocks falling all over the two dragons and Shang Sei. Marco and Ava declare that nothing could survive that landslide, despite there being 10 minutes more running time left in the film, and go back to see the dying Giovanni. After burying Gao, Marco and Ava head back home with Giovanni’s body. Back at the cave, Shang Sei ain’t quite dead yet, and crawls out from the rocks. Soon after, the Red Dragon also comes out, and is totally POed! Red Dragon bites Shang in half, and then burns him to ash! Afterwards, the dragon shoots flames all over in rage.
Back in the city, the King tells Marco he can have whatever he wants, but Marco says he belongs at home now, with Ava and his nephew. Dragon Dynasty: promoting family values. Also, promoting men getting burned alive, as the dragon has returned to make Italy burn. Marco grabs the gun, and runs into the Coliseum or a coliseum (I don’t think there is a coliseum in Catanzaro, but most ancient buildings were destroyed by earthquakes so who knows?) to lure the dragon. The dragon jumps inside, and instead of Marco blasting it, archers appear from every entryway. The dragon gets shot with arrows, but as dragon fire beats arrows, the archers prove ineffective and most of them get burnt like they’re made of oily rags. Marco runs instead of firing his cannon. I’m getting flashbacks of the Star Trek episode Arena here, with Kirk fighting the Gorn, but Kirk would have shot the dragon by now. Ava has turned into a useless female character who just says “Marco” every few seconds in a concerned voice. Where is the tough woman who wants to fight? She became subservient to her man pretty quickly. Marco jumps on a horse and rides into a field, and then shoots the dragon in the heart with the cannon using the Dragon Stone as the projectile! The dragon dies. Did you know that dragons are self-cleaning? This one crumbles to dust and blows away. No mess, no fuss! Ava rides up, and then we end the film with a funeral pyre for Giovanni. Ironic, since he was almost already pyred! I guess he likes his food well-done!
Iain here again to ramble a little bit about this film. First of all this is hands down the best SciFi Original I’ve seen in a long time. Not only was it entertaining but it also made the most of the locations, CGI, and actors. Sure it’s cheesier than a BK Stacker (and probably clogged my visual taste arteries just as much) but it did one thing I’ve never seen from a SciFi original – it made the crap sets and locations fit. I doubt that 13th century Italian kings had their soldiers geared up like Roman legions from 600 years earlier, but still you have no doubt you’re in Italy. The Chinese sequences were more or less convincing and best of all the CGI establishing shots made sense and helped with a sense of scale. Acting… always rather dodgy in these things is more flat than outright bad. At least there’s some enthusiasm. Dialogue is of course laden with cheese and, probably, unintentional humor, generally the whole thing takes itself rather seriously. To much so? You’ll just have to see it yourself.
What I really appreciated about this flick was that the director obviously set out to stretch his little budget and make the best damn film he could. There’s a few really nice action/effects shots. Notably the underwater shot and when Ava’s dad gets charred. It’s these little touches in a film that you would expect only mediocrity from, that makes me hope that director Matt Codd gets many more chances with genre pictures. He, unlike most of the hacks who churn out this stuff, understands how to make an entertaining film for relatively little money and throw in a some ‘vision’ for good measure. Sure there’s some downsides to this movie, but quite frankly there are nights when you want a straight up piece of fluff. If you like adventure and lots of burnination you’ll definitely want to set the TiVo or look for the DVD (hopefully a DVD, if anything from SciFi deserves a release this does). 2.5 out of 5 stars.
Actually Matt does have another piece on the way, Lost Colony, which sees English colonists on the American coast in 1581 battling Viking wraiths. Bring it on mate. You can see of stills and assorted junk at: lostcolony-themovie.com
Well, that’s the end of Dragon Dynasty, another movie successfully slayed thanks to the power of teamwork. I’m sorry I couldn’t work in a Dragon “Die Nasty” joke somewhere, but it was probably for the best. SciFi Channel and their movies, the drive-in theaters of the 21st century. The main problem is that TV at home isn’t your car at an outdoor theater, thus your girlfriend can go read a book instead of making out with you when the movie goes sour. Still, these movies will continue for years to come, so we must get prepared for their impact on the world of filmmaking at large. Adventures in being average such as this effort are double edged swords. They are not so terrible you must kill everyone responsible (Komodo vs. Cobra) and not so good you feel entertained despite the many notorious flaws (Boa vs. Python). Wholly unmemorable. I think the producers of American Idol state it best, even if they are discussion something completely different. You have to stand out from the crowd. Dragon Dynasty did not stand out. It is the guy who is cut the first week of the final 12, whose name you don’t remember and when he shows up on the reunion show you spend most of his time trying to remember why he looks vaguely familiar. But soon you go back to watching everyone else, and all thoughts of him fade from your mind, forever. And thus, Dragon Dynasty fades away, perhaps to be rediscovered one rainy day when nothing else is on TV, and a creeping suspicion in the back of my mind I’ve seen this all before….
Rated 4/10 (Dying Father, Forehead Tribesman, Exploding boat, Soon to be Dying Father)
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