Director Hyung Rae Shim is an ambitious man. He wanted to make a film that would have international appeal, one with spectacular special effects and a story that would portray Koreans in a more positive light than previous films. But perhaps the most ambitious part of it all is that Shim didn't want to outsource his CGI work for a sci-fi entry that absolutely depended on it. This former stand-up comic built his own special effects unit named after one of his comic personae: Yunggu Art. The reason is admirable. Shim said he wants to help "grow" a strong and healthy Korean film industry, and plans to continue making films until one is established.
As a result, "D-War," or "Dragon Wars" as it's being called for the U.S. release, was the most anticipated film in Korea, with a huge premier and all sorts of promotions. And while you might think the special effects would be the most suspect element, the CGI work is really pretty decent. Certainly young viewers will thrill to the lifelike movement and battles of dragons, giant snakes, and big fat people-eating creatures that look as if they came right out of one of the last "Star Wars" films. No, the CGI work isn't the problem at all. It's a script that's so mind-bogglingly muddled that it has to keep explaining itself-one which incorporates so many familiar elements borrowed from other films that it feels more like derivation than playful allusions or homages.
You know that moment in a confusing movie when one of the characters explains everything for the audience? Well, that happens here too, a number of times, but even listening carefully to the explanations, the average viewer is going to have a hard time grasping the concept. I know I did.
It all begins with a TV reporter checking out the scene of a disaster and, seeing something buried in the earth that looks like a gigantic trilobite, he has a déjà vu moment. "I've seen this before," he thinks," and in not-so-subtle fashion we jump back in time 15 years when a boy and his father go to an antique store, where the father is trying to get money for a dagger. The boy wanders off and a chest opens, light beams out, and inside lies (yep) another of those trilobite-looking things, which we learn is a dragon scale. "I've been waiting for you," shopkeeper Jack (Robert Forster) says, and he proceeds to explain the whole thing. You'll get about half of it, I'm guessing. Follow me to another flashback, this time to 1507 Korea, where a master named Bokchun is teaching Haram something about something and shows him a good "Imoogi" which was heaven-sent. Meanwhile, bad guys and their "Star Wars" creatures (I'm serious-George Lucas could have designed these) attack in grand fashion and tear through the town looking for a girl who was born with a red dragon tattoo on her shoulder. As Jack tells this little boy, once every 500 years an Imoogi can ascend to heaven and become a dragon IF it combines with Yu Yi Joo, but until such time as blah-blah-huh? other bad guys can do blah-blah-what? and it's never really clear to me how or why or what has to happen for these things to unite, or who made this rule up, and what this bad guy who's an apparent general part of the time and a guy walking around in black the rest of the time is to the Baraki, who are (is?) apparently the bad Imoogi.
At some point, you just have to stop trying to grasp the concept and just think good Imoogi vs. bad Imoogi and bad guy in black and all sorts of bad creatures vs. the good people and all of the extras who take their cue from old "Godzilla" movies and shoot at these bad creatures. Which is to say, at some point it all comes back to the CGI work.
As snakes blast through tunnels and parking garages at breakneck speed, they're really animated on a par with the giant snake and other creatures in the Harry Potter films. There's believable muscle-movement, and as the giant snake (which looks like half legless dragon and half cobra) slithers up a building as helicopters shoot at it in a "King Kong" moment, the way windows and exterior particles are flaked off as it moves seems believable enough. I've seen more spectacular helicopter crashes, but there's nothing here to embarrass the House of Yunggu. It all comes down to the fact that Shim is a better director than he is a writer. This film has moments that will remind you a little of "Ghostbusters," "Lord of the Rings," "He-Man," "Godzilla," "Star Wars," "The Wizard of Oz," "King Kong," and (unfortunately) a lot of "Power Rangers." As a result, it feels like a kitchen-sink sci-fi effort that gives us more déjà vu moments than the two stars.
Speaking of which, Shim also could have picked less generic-looking actors to fill the lead roles. Neither Jason Behr as Haram/Ethan nor Amanda Brooks as Sarah, the reincarnation of that Korean girl from 500 years ago, are distinctive enough for us to believe they're the unlucky chosen ones in a celestial chess match that's played every half-millenium. They're not bad actors, but neither is able to hold their own in this high concept film. They get caught up in the confusion, same as the rest of us, when we needed them to help us get a handle on things.
Then there's the unexpected occasional comic moment, as when the black-suited evil general who transforms into a Power Ranger-style dude walks through a fence in order to get to Jack/Bokchun. An old woman sees it, and tries to do the same, but bounces off the chain-link and continues. In a routine that's right out of the vaudeville drunk and pink elephant bits, a zookeeper is strapped in a restraining vest because he claims he saw a snake eat an elephant. Had there been more moments like this, we could have accepted the film as one big campy romp. Instead, you're left to question the logic of the man hospitalized so quickly and being interrogated by a woman who's ready to let him go if he admits he saw nothing. This is therapy?? It's the same goofiness we see when the Secretary of Defense goes into an FBI room (yeah, here's where Shim could have used a co-writer, or at least a technical advisor) and wants to know where things are at. He's told, "Some of our agents have found similarities to an old legend." Yeah, like your average FBI recruit is going to know Korean folklore, and that their bosses are going to buy into it so matter-of-factly. It's a "Godzilla" moment that doesn't play because most of this film seems more serious than it is campy. Tone is a huge problem.
So is the ending, which finds the two stars captured and transported from L.A. (where the general's army and the Baraki have wreaked havoc) to a landscape that looks like Castle Grayskull. So where is this place, and how did everyone get there, and how far of a walk is it for poor Ethan and Sarah if they make it out of there alive?
I don't know. As I said, you just can't think about this film too much. Just pretend you're in the White House and reduce everything to "good vs. evil" and run with it. At least then you'll have the pleasure of watching some decent special effects.
"Dragon Wars" is presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio, and it looks great in Blu-ray. There's a good amount of detail, and though the palette has a bluish cast to it throughout much of the film, in scenes where there's traditional color you can see that the saturation levels are good. Same with black levels.
The audio is an English or French Dolby TrueHD 5.1, which pretty much rocks. Helicopters whiz behind your ears and over your heads, you hear missiles fired from those big fat "Star Wars" animals that cross your viewing space, and every "arrrrahhhhh" that comes out of those Imoogi/Baraki mouths is rich and full. Of course, all that "arrrahhhing" can get old, but that's another story.
Some pretty scant extras here. A short feature called "5,000 Years in the Making" tells the story of what inspired Shim to make this film, and the more you watch him speak and see how passionate and how worthy his motives are, the more you wish you could have really liked his film. We learn that while many cultures have dragon mythologies, there really is a creature called the Imoogi that is unique to Korean folklore. And it's also fascinating to learn that Shim was originally told no guns, and then there are 400-500 extras with machine guns in post-9/11 L.A. He was originally told no tanks, and then the actors see tanks rolling down the streets of L.A. We don't get any explanation of HOW this all came to pass, unfortunately, because it's just a featurette and not a full-length documentary. So it ends up being a bit of information that still keeps us asking questions-not unlike the film itself. There are also five scenes for which you can view storyboard comparisons. The finished frame plays in widescreen like a mouth on the screen, while a rough sketch occupies the left-eye position and an early print the right-eye. At least in this one we learn that the flying dragons that are told by the evil general "find her" (and which remind you of those flying monkeys that left the witch's castle in Oz) are called Bulco. Also included is a conceptual art gallery.
Kids whose parents allow them to see films with violence are going to like this one better than adults. For them, the battles, the creatures, and the special effects will be enough. My son gleefully pronounced it "a great sleepover film."
As for me? As Jason expressed in his review, I wanted some of that blah-blah-huh? explained. Had all of this made more sense, and had the humor been better integrated throughout the film, it would have worked.