When East meets West in cuisine, they call it fusion. When they collide cinematically, it could easily be labeled con-fusion. When a fan approaches a Hong Kong action epic, they don’t expect an overemphasis on plot, a lot of confused character double dealing, and a visit from the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. Nor are they looking for ex-Hollywood A-list desperate for a paycheck. No, they hear the premise of a particular Asian stunt spectacle and assume its time for the spirit of John Woo to infect yet another franchise. And when you add in the now mandatory international angle (for financial and marketing reasons), the results can be inconsistent at best. For director Danny Lee, the combination cast, along with the overly complicated narrative, should have spelled motion picture disaster. But thanks to his skill behind the lens, his epic police procedural Dragon Heat becomes an imminently watchable bullet ballet.
Clearly created to showcase a meshing of old school heroism with new jack bravado, Dragon Heat has its moments of stellar symbolism. When martial arts master Sammo Hung (as the aforementioned driver) goes mano y mano with Jun-ho Heo (as the disgruntled military man) in a close combat sequence, its pure archaeological adrenaline. Our pulse quickens just knowing that we’re about the see a true screen legend open up a can of whoop ass with nothing more than his fists. Similarly, Maggie Q has an excellent cemetery shoot out with her good guy equivalent, and the trading of carefully aimed gunfire among the grave markers is certainly suspenseful. But Lee also allows his purpose to undermine his young ones. They appear strategically inept, impulsive to a fatal fault, and marksmen in name only. During a setpiece factory alley firefight, with apparently plentiful ammunition, no one is capable of hitting a criminal, let alone the broad side of a building. Yet we’re supposed to buy these noble newcomers as the next “wave” in justice. It’s an odd juxtaposition that frequently fails to engage.
Still, Lee is enough of a craftsman to help us forget the kids and their incomplete acumen. The narrative relies on context and flashback to fill in the missing interpersonal blanks, and just when we think we’ve learned all we can about our players, we get subplot scenes involving lost loves, paralyzed brothers, and fame-hungry supervisors. Edited into the film in a manner that makes a quick and considered impact, Lee does go a tad overboard at the end, offering repeats of these montages just before the plot ordered face-offs occur. Still, for a potential viewer raised on video games and other forms of multifaceted media, it makes for a visually arresting and appealing ideal. In fact, Dragon Heat often acts like a metamorphosis between the staged spectacle of previous Hong Kong crime cinema and a new, more naturalized motion picture approach.
There are some stylistic choices that will undermine your enjoyment, especially in light of how Lee handles their happenstance. Every gun battle in Dragon Heat is a borderline irritating exercise in ammunitus interruptus. In order to lengthen said action scenes, our director makes these heroes and villains all pomp and very little precision. During a single volley of gunfire, we can see thousands of rounds exchanged, but very few come close to hitting their mark. Indeed, even when a scope shows a body part clearly in the crosshairs, the round rarely arrives as planned. This is especially disquieting during the finale. Our leads have all been talking semi-smack for at least 20 minutes or so, pumping themselves up to take on these fiends who are clearly more aggressive than they will ever be. They even get Sammo’s sage character to agree to a blade on blade rematch. But as our kung fu god is slicing and dicing with a machete, these literal young guns are proving, yet again, their lack of rudimentary trigger pulling skills.
It also doesn’t help that our supposedly formidable force frequently sulk like Kenny when he learns that Gamera is not coming out to play. Their dour, disappointed personalities often remind one of brats being scolded, not seasoned cops looking to take a bite out of crime. Part of this is Lee’s fault. Aside from a silly sequence where our agents show off their questionable talents at a pub’s shooting gallery, we never see them successfully complete a mission. They always miss by a hair, or underestimate their opponents or their strategies, leading to another dressing down by their superiors. In fact, we are told on more than one occasion that these visiting lawmen (and women) are not really wanted. They’re sheepishly given a role here because they hold the evidence to convict the local drug kingpin. But once that villain meets a rather grizzly fate, it’s fairly clear their “expertise” is a marginalized commodity at best.
Still, Dragon Heat delivers enough suspense and old world moralizing to make the trip well worth while. The inclusion of an international cast definitely gives the film a unique edge, especially when cult favorites like Michael Biehn pop up to show us how it’s done. As part of the ample added content provided by the DVD, we learn of the money men’s desire for a ‘name’ cast, some Western flair, and a native angle that spanned demographical and media interests. From the commentary track by producer/Hong Kong film historian Bey Logan to the music video like Making-Of featurette, there is a clear, calculated approach to this project which explains a lot of its appeal – and a great deal of its entertainment apprehension. Call it a “too many cooks” conceit, or intrusion by people who have no business determining aesthetic, but the “everything to everyone” designs are apparent all throughout this otherwise exceptional effort.
Flaws and all, Dragon Heat is definitely worth paying attention to. It seems to indicate the future of Asian action while commenting directly on the expectations of and exceptions to the standard genre archetypes. It’s more a movie of individual moments than all out epic of excitement, and the futuristic metropolitan backdrop delivers a beneficial, big city appeal. While it would have been nice to see more hand to hand combat vs. all the non-stop firefighting, the final result is something even the most jaded slo-mo shoot out lover could embrace. In some ways, Dragon Heat expertly mirrors the guerilla style of battle exploding all across the post-millennial urban landscape. While duty and honor are still important, quick reflexes and a brazen determination are far more valuable. This is one fusion film that actually works – in spite of itself.
// Notes from the Road
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