Saturday, September 13, 2008

Dolph Lundgren Is Bridge of Dragons!

You’ve probably noticed that there have been fewer posts here on the blog over the past few weeks, which is a result of the heavy duty planning Rob and I are in the midst of for Monster Fest. I’m happy to say that the schedule is just about final, and it’s looking to be our best year yet. Details will be hitting the blog here in the next week, so be sure to keep checking in to learn about all the cool stuff taking place on the big day, Saturday, October 4 (mark those calendars). In keeping with the horror theme, I’ll be doing a series of posts on Australian horror cinema over the next couple of weeks. Before diving into that though, I simply have to write about the latest experience in my journey through the filmography of Dolph Lundgren . . . Bridge of Dragons!

I haven’t been plowing through the films of Dolph at the same pace as I did with Seagal, and I haven’t been doing much in the way of preparation prior to the viewings (e.g. researching background, reading reviews, etc.). For the most part I’m watching these at a leisurely pace and completely cold. Even so, with Bridge of Dragons I had picked up a little buzz just in perusing the sites I usually frequent about cult cinema, and that buzz was mostly positive. As a result, I had built this one up a little in my mind as something I should be looking forward to as another instant Dolph classic (e.g. Blackjack). Engaging in this sort of behavior is always a bit dicey in the world of DTV (direct-to-video) filmdom, as the best one can usually hope for is sheer entertainment (achieving classic status in DTV is a rare feat). Not that there’s anything wrong with that. These DTV films don’t harbor much in the way of pretentions, and as far as I’m concerned that’s just fine. What I usually look for and have come to appreciate is a) consistent action, and b) on a good day a plot that veers into the territory of the bizarre/insane. Happily Bridge of Dragons fulfills these criteria for the most part. It’s hampered a bit by budgetary constraints (as most DTV films are), but it managed to come close to living up to the goodwill buildup I had afforded it.

The plot of this 1999 Lundgren opus actually is a bit of a throwback to post-apocalyptic/fantasy 80’s cinema. The film is set in an unspecified future in which a totalitarian ruler named Ruechang (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) is on the verge of ascending to the unnamed kingdom’s throne. All he has to do is marry the deceased king’s daughter Princess Halo, which proves challenging since she wants nothing to do with the brutal dictator (especially after finding out he assassinated her father). When the princess flees to the wastelands outside the kingdom on the day of the big wedding, Ruechang sends his most trusted soldier Warchyld (Lundgren) to retrieve her. During the course of the mission Warchyld will come to question his allegiance to the diabolical Ruechang, and might just fall for the beautiful princess. A pretty typical fairy tale plot, but as always it’s the execution that makes the film something special.

Where to start with this? Well, right off the bat Bridge of Dragons made a move that can be a little risky for films of this type. It starts with a title card reminiscent of a storybook tale stating that the film is set in another time, and another place. I’m actually paraphrasing there using the opening statement from the 1984 film Streets of Fire, but the message is the same. Now I confess I absolutely love Streets of Fire. It was a huge bomb in the summer of ’84, and did a good job of stalling Walter Hill’s directorial career after his success with The Warriors and 48 Hours. Nevertheless the film is an interesting hybrid of 80’s neon post-apocalyptic futurism and 50’s rockabilly on steroids. A bizarre combination to be sure, but Hill makes it work and created something very unique.

Bridge of Dragons actually goes for something similar by attempting to meld 80’s era action sensibilities (e.g. Commando) with B-level medieval pageantry (e.g. Hawk the Slayer), combined with just a dash of Van Damme’s Street Fighter. Director Isaac Florentine (The Shepherd: Border Patrol) isn’t nearly as successful as Hill was in merging opposing settings, but it makes for a pretty outrageous canvas. You get costume designs that recall Nazi-era Germany, the Rambo films, and Ladyhawke, and dialogue that is a mix of Old English and Mortal Kombat. Instead of achieving the cool vibe of Streets of Fire, Bridge of Dragons comes closer to the feel of Predator 2 (i.e. look at me, I’m a movie set in the “future” and you can tell because I’m wearing a crazy shirt and men’s hats are back in fashion). This could be a deficit from a certain point of view, but for me it’s spot on in fulfilling my second requirement of DTV films that they veer into the bizarre.

If being bizarre alone was enough to qualify a DTV film as great entertainment, then Steven Seagal’s Submerged would be an undisputed masterpiece. Unfortunately for that film and many other DTV entries, you’ve really gotta have some interesting action on screen as well. It’s fine and good to make people scratch their heads and debate meaning by employing a surrealistic method of storytelling (e.g. David Lynch), but the type of bizarre you come across in DTV is usually accidental rather than a carefully considered artistic choice. By throwing the action in there as well, filmmakers keep viewers engaged with eye candy and visceral thrills, while burning an impression into the mind with the disjointed themes and plot elements. You simply have to have both conditions in place to produce a solid DTV product. That’s why films like Lost Boys: The Tribe are successful even when they don’t do justice to their legacy. They manage to take relatively limited resources and craft an entertaining 90-minute thrill ride (only the vehicle is more Volkswagen GTI than Porsche 911).

Bridge of Dragons may not have any legacy to live up to (except maybe previous Lundgren films), but it does manage to fulfill the criteria of plentiful action . . . with a vengeance! Director Florentine seems on a mission to take as few breaks as possible, and does so only to establish the most minimal of plot details (e.g. who is the bad guy/good guy). The pacing is positively breathless. Of course just because there’s lots of action doesn’t necessarily mean it’s well done or enjoyable to watch. A movie can be overflowing with endless, yet poorly staged action sequences. Thankfully Bridge of Dragons is pretty solid in this regard. There’s nothing groundbreaking here, but the work is competent and there are some standout moments. Particularly satisfying is the final duel between Warchyld and Ruechang, which has some really over the top blows and staging. It even has the obligatory damsel in distress setup in which the princess is pinned underneath an overturned jeep as flames make their way closer to her from a fuel tanker that is conveniently close by. Actually it all reminded me a little bit of the last Lundgren film I reviewed (Diamond Dogs). In that one the damsel in peril was mortally wounded because Dolph lazily chose not to intervene (despite the fact she had just saved his life). Warchyld is more in the traditional hero mode, so he’s a little more concerned about the welfare of others (which is fitting in this context).

As an interesting piece of trivia, this is not the first time Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa has played Dolph’s nemesis. Some of you may recall he was the main baddie in the superior Lundgren film Showdown in Little Tokyo (1991). You may also recall my mentioning in an earlier review that a memory of Showdown that stuck out for me was the final street duel between Tagawa and Lundgren. Tagawa shoots Lundgren in the chest point blank, to which Lundgren responds with an annoyed grunt. The two then proceed to have an epic sword battle. It always struck me as patently ridiculous that Lundgren could take a bullet to the pectoral without missing a beat. I mean come on. That being said, it was so jaw-dropping that I hold it up as one of the great moments in B-action cinema.

The reason I bring all this up, besides the Tagawa connection, is that Bridge of Dragons features a similarly outrageous moment. In an early scene where Dolph is rescuing Princess Halo from some jungle bandits, he takes a grievous bullet wound to the abdomen . . . and again he shrugs it off. Granted he does receive some token medical attention in the scene that follows, but he continues to go on as if nothing has happened. Look I’m no doctor, and I’m open to the concept of keeping a stiff upper lip through physical pain, but this is a real stretch. To draw a cinematic parallel, imagine if Tim Roth had simply been told by Harvey Keitel in Reservoir Dogs to “walk it off” in response to his wound sustained during the jewel heist getaway. That’s what we’re talking about here. Dolph is running laps, doing roundhouse kicks, and blowing up helicopters with a similar injury. What is it about the pairing of Lundgren and Tagawa that invites exaggeration with regard to the severity of bullet wounds? It’s just too over the top to dismiss as a coincidence!

Despite a seeming lack of even rudimentary knowledge of the effects of physical trauma, the performances in Bridge of Dragons are pretty decent. Dolph is well-suited to the role of the knightly hero, and Tagawa is always dependable in villainous roles. One thing that I found particularly cool was Dolph’s introduction early in the film, in which he takes on a band of rebel soldiers. The movie is coy about revealing Dolph’s face, hiding him behind binoculars, thusly making you wait for the “it’s on now” moment when he lowers them and unleashes a hail of bullets at the people who will be his allies by the end of the film. It’s the kind of intro usually afforded to well-known characters/actors (e.g. James Bond), not second-tier action heroes. I liked it because in hiding Dolph’s face for a big reveal, the filmmakers are making the assumption that the audience will be totally fired up when they realize (surprise!) international action star Dolph Lundgren is in the film. I don’t know, I guess I’m a little conflicted on this point. Part of me does think this is an awesome tactic because there’s such bravado on display in boldly asserting the inherent coolness of Dolph’s presence in the film, but it will likely puzzle non-Lundgren devotees. In the final analysis though I tend to go with the adage that luck favors the bold, and I’d say that holds true here. Of course as we learned in Under Siege 2 chance favors the prepared mind, so make of all this what you will.

Ultimately I would recommend you give a look to Bridge of Dragons. It’s a fun throwback to 80’s action cinema that you’ll have a lot of fun with. And if you’re a fan of Dolph it’s a no-brainer that this is required viewing. The only thing I’m left puzzled about is the title. There are no bridges in the film, nor are there dragons, so there’s obviously a metaphor at work. I would have to guess that Dolph and Tagawa are the dragons, although the feisty princess (who really is responsible for stirring the pot) could qualify for the title (especially given that she drives a wedge between two guys who are essentially good buddies at the beginning of the film). The bridge is a little more perplexing. It makes me wonder if this is one of those Seagalian editing room plot reversals. I could just imagine the movie originally being about a massive bridge or something, and then all references being excised at the 11th hour due to some creative differences. As it stands, the title’s lack of reference to actual physical objects/creatures in film makes Bridge of Dragons sound somehow more “important” or artsy . . . which is a nice consideration as it makes it appropriate for a double-feature with either Masters of the Universe or Howard’s End. Very shrewd indeed.


Anonymous said...

The title is referencing the initial screenplay, rewritten by the producers without the director's or Dolph's consent...

check out upcoming rock star Dolph at (exclusive teaser trailer!)

Jim Blanton said...

I figured it had to be something like that. On the positive side, unlike Seagal's films, at least this one was changed prior to filming. If it were a Seagal film, there would inexplicably still be dragons and bridges in the finished film with absolutely no context furnished (e.g. Attack Force).

Command Performance looks amazing!!! My favorite Dolph DTV film so far was the excellent Missionary Man, but this one looks like it will give MM a run for its money. Dolph as rock star in a Die Hard scenario . . . genius! I also like that the promo info indicates that this will be pure old school with no CGI or wirework. That's what I love about the DTV films of Dolph, Van Damme, etc. They understand how to make a solid action film . . . it's a shame Hollywood doesn't get it!