It’s been a good year for dragon-lovers. Naomi Novik published the fourth book in the Temeraire series (I’ve yet to read it, but Canyon seemed to like it a lot), Beowulf ended with a superb fight between the Cockney/Geat warrior and an awesome firebreathing beast, and Enchanted featured an endearingly camp purple dragon voiced by Susan Sarandon and designed by genius monster-mind Crash McCreery.
Oddly, though, the big draw for us was a big-budget Korean fantasy-action flick starring a guy off Roswell, Robert “Alligator” Forster, and Daryl from The Office. It promised huge battle scenes, a plethora of dragons, and city-wide destruction on a similar scale to Transformers. Though early word was horribly negative, I was still intrigued and psyched. Come on! Wicked awesome dragons, powered by Korean ingenuity and let loose on LA! That sounded like a perfect movie, but that’s assuming that film is made by someone who understands how to write a coherent screenplay, or how to block actors, or how to direct them, or how to pace a movie, or…
Basically, I’m saying dragon mayhem only works when you’ve got someone behind the camera who knows more about directing than that the words “action” and “cut” make the actors start and stop reciting heavy-handed, overly-complicated and incomprehensible exposition. Hyung-Rae Shim is most definitely not that man.
We should have taken as a warning the tagline on the poster above and on the D-War homepage: “Since THE DAWN of LEGEND, Absolutely UNIMAGINABLE affair OCCURS on THE HUMAN RACE. They are LOOKING for SOMEONE. SOMEONE WHO has been CHOSEN by HEAVEN…” If they’re not bothering to translate something properly, we’re in for a pretty haphazardly made film. That’s not to say Shim doesn’t have some faith in his own ability. According to this SciFi Japan review, when bragging about the scale and ambition of D-War, Shim said, “LORD OF THE RINGS was made in a field, but we’ve shot in the heart of LA.” Somewhere in New Zealand, Peter Jackson is humbled.
As if possessed by the Satanic ghost of Dr. Uwe Boll, director of the maddeningly complex Alone In The Dark, D-War opens with an animated crawl explaining the story of a race of serpent things, and the birth of a magical woman every 500 years who contains a spirit power sent from heaven that will transform creatures called Imugis into Celestial Dragons. If a good Imugi gets hold of this power, then everything is fine, but if an evil Imugi wins out, we’re screwed. This is apparently taken from Korean myth, though from the complexity of it, and the fact that it so often contradicts itself, it seems to be taken from all of Korean myth at the same time. I spent a long time trying to make out what the hell was being conveyed to me, and it was time wasted. I don’t think Shim understands what it means either.
We then cut to modern day L.A., to find an enormous gouge in the landscape. Just to confuse matters more, a Native American is shouting about how we have awakened “them”. Hey, Native American dude, stop claiming incomprehensible Korean myths as your own! Chris Mulkey and a fellow FBI flunky are investigating this disaster, at which point our journalist hero Ethan, played by blank slate Jason Behr, and his cameraman Bruce (a much livelier Craig Robinson), appear and harangue the Feds. After Mulkey and the Mulkey-Flunky rudely tell Ethan to get lost he sees a weird object being unearthed which later turns out to be a dragon scale.
After returning to his office, where he seems to be under the impression it’s a Bad Taste Fashion day for charity, Behr mulls over the events of the morning (in echoey voiceover), and suddenly remembers a visit to an antiques store he made as a kid, where he is blasted with magical energy by a similar dragon scale and then treated to a long expositional lecture from Robert Forster. Then he remembers being given a large magical amulet, even though he’s actually wearing it at the time. Is he Guy Pearce in Memento? Who forgets these kinds of things? I mean, it’s twice as big as an iPod and has pointy bits on it.
The flashback to his childhood contains even more exposition than the opening crawl, with Forster going into immensely confusing detail about the Imugi and the spirit power called the Yu I Joo, which is a gift from heaven for good Imugi, but there is a bad Imuji called Buraki who wants the Yu I Joo. Heaven sends down two guys, a warrior (called Haram) and a magician, to save the day. That’s all? Forster makes it sound like it would be a bad thing if Baraki gets the Yu I Joo, but Heaven only sends two guys, one of whom (the warrior) is next to useless? What’s worse, the Yu I Joo manifests within a woman (Narin) on her twentieth birthday, and then she has to find a good Imugi before a bad Imugi gets her. Even Royal Mail has a more reliable system that that.
Just to make things more complicated, the flashback flashes back again, to ancient Korea, where a village is destroyed by evil forces looking for Narin, the possessor of the Yu I Joo. It’s very dramatic, very silly, and very badly filmed, except for the bravura effects moments. In that respect it reminds me of Return of the Jedi. During non-effects sequences, Richard Marquand seems unable to inject any life or pace into the movie, but as soon as ILM take over, the film turns into a rollercoaster. Same here. When Shim’s effects team are responsible for what’s onscreen, the film is enormous fun for all the right reasons. When Shim is behind the camera directing actors, it all goes horribly, hilariously wrong.
Also, it’s a pointless scene. The village might be much larger than I would expect a village to be, but it’s surrounded by a flimsy wall and has a couple of cannons to protect the inhabitants. Buraki sends his evil general (who according to the press notes, goes by the name of Evil General) to retrieve the Yu I Joo, and his army comprises about 50000 soldiers and monsters who raze the village to the ground with ease. There’s some memorable carnage, but what made me laugh most was that in the middle of the explosions and villager-crushings and infantry stampedes, there’s a dramatic shot of one of the large creatures (called a Dawdler) knocking over a two foot high wall that serves no purpose, except perhaps to keep a couple of chickens from running off. It gets the same treatment as the genocide. Perhaps they’re the monarchs of the chicken kingdom.
Sadly, while that scene is very big and silly and satisfying, for the first two thirds of the movie we have to contend with numerous stilted dialogue scenes, repetitive deus ex machinas, poorly staged fight scenes and, I’m not kidding, yet more exposition. My God, at times it feels like we’re watching The Silmarillion as filmed by a teenager obsessed with Rampage and Age of Empire.
What’s worse is that the in-world rules make no sense. Why has Heaven come up with this incredibly complicated Yu I Joo delivery system? Put it in a hott girl, bake for twenty years, and then watch as the bad “guy” swoops in and eats her? What’s worse is they don’t take into account the inevitable love affair between Haram and Narin, which makes Narin not want to serve up the Yu I Joo to the good Imugi, choosing instead to kill herself (and Haram) before either Buraki or the good Imugi can get to her, meaning the whole ridiculous ordeal gets repeated 500 years later, with a girl called Sarah becoming the new holder of the Yu I Joo, and Ethan becoming the new protector thanks to some handy reincarnation, though he doesn’t inherit any combat skills or dress sense.
Basically, what Shim must have written down when he started this project is, “Find reason for big monsters to chase young couple around city so I can destroy it.” Unfortunately, he went crazy trying to make it seem like there was more plot there, and a lot of time is spent while he adds layer upon layer of exposition on the core. Seriously, if Forster had just said, “Heaven made this hott chick all powerful so she could promote a monster but another monster wants the job more so you’ve got to get her out of here otherwise we’re screwed now go and run around and get into lots of destructive scrapes!” I would have respected it a lot more.
If you think I’ve spent too long talking about a flashback scene, please bear in mind that this scene is fifteen minutes long. I’m not exaggerating; I just timed it. The only other movie I’ve seen do that is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and this movie is not Crouching Tiger (though the dragons do miraculously remain hidden for the majority of the movie, and in the middle of L.A., no less).
For all the time spent explaining the identity of main characters (for instance, Forster turns out to be the wizard, who has been hanging around for 500 years waiting for Behr to appear, which is a massively depressing prospect), and the backstory of the dragons, none is spent explaining why the Feds hate Behr on sight, or what the gouge is (the viewer can figure it’s Buraki’s work, but you’d have to take a leap of logic to figure it), and what effect it has had on the populace. Also, as in I Know Who Killed Me, for the majority of the movie the police characters appear to have been included only because Shim thinks they have to be included, though he doesn’t know what to do with them other than have them say, “You mean it’s organic?” or “We have to find this girl!” They do nothing to further the plot and remain clueless throughout. At least, that’s what happens for the majority of the movie (see below).
When the flashback finally ends and Ethan begins to act on his memories (i.e. he tells Bruce to use his amazing Google skills to search for all of the Sarahs in LA), we’re introduced to the correct Sarah, played by Amanda Brooks. She is the reincarnation of Narin, though has also seemingly forgotten her heritage until this moment. Or perhaps she knows all about it, which is equally odd. If I knew I was the container into which Heaven has poured a mighty mystical force that must be used to give an enormous ancient serpent an upgrade, I’d probably base my whole life around it and probably try to make some money off it. Instead she just appears to be a moody valley girl who hangs out at the gym.
Maybe her relentlessly dour expression is her way of dealing with her responsibility. She doesn’t smile once during the movie, and barely registers any effort in the role. Maybe that was a direction from Shim, but how unappealing does this make her? Inexplicably she has a friend who tries to cheer her up, but all she does in return is whine about wanting to stay at home and sulk. What with Behr’s blandness and her misery, the only reason they could ever find each other attractive is by being the reincarnated spirits of two doomed losers from 16th Century Korea.
Not long after being introduced and realising she is in great danger from attack by Buraki’s forces, Sarah does the safest thing possible; going drinking with her friend to drown her seemingly epic sorrows. After leaving early with an attack of the Whiny Dullness, she’s assaulted by some random fratty muggers, and is in serious trouble until out of the blue Robert Forster appears and rescues her with some effortless (i.e. lazily filmed) martial arts moments. After saving her ass, he slopes off into the night, probably so he can listen to The Delfonics in his car.
She ends up reporting the event to the police, and while she does it a random photographer walks through the station, takes a photo of her, and is chased off. Peculiar, I thought, but then a couple of scenes later, while Ethan is moaning to Bruce that he’s a jerk for not being able to find the right Sarah out of several thousand with only the description of a Yu I Joo-brand birthmark to go on, the photographer (who works there, of course), walks past them and mentions that he just met a Sarah who got into a fight and hey, here’s a photo of her! Was the photographer called Mr. P. Lotdevice?
For various reasons too illogical to try to parse here, Sarah gets committed to a hospital (for having bad dreams about Evil General, it seems), and goes berserk with a plastic knife. Or as berserk as someone who is unable to act can get. Before she can hurt anyone Ethan arrives, but his path is blocked by an officious nurse. Fortunately a kindly doctor sneaks him into the room, meaning he and Sarah finally meet again after 500 years (romance!), just as Buraki attacks the hospital. They flee, again with the help of the kindly doctor, who waits until they’ve gone and morphs into Robert Forster! I have no idea why he hides his identity from them in this way. Maybe 500 years of waiting around has made him playful. Or shy. There follows another funky effects sequence, with Buraki chasing Sarah, Ethan, and Bruce through an underground car park, though they manage to outrun it. This happens several times; a small car outruns a 300 foot long snake. There’s asking the audience to suspend disbelief, and then there’s not giving a damn what the audience thinks.
Upon eluding Buraki, Bruce’s car slams into Evil General, who looks like he’s going for a stroll down the centre of the road. Cloaked in magical armour, he knocks Bruce around for a bit and then electrocutes him (Craig Robinson’s high-pitched yelp of pain is the only moment of actual comedy in the entire film). Ethan ineffectually stands around, allowing Evil General to almost grab Sarah and do terribly obscure magical things to her when, hilariously, another car comes out of nowhere and runs him over again.
At first I thought that this scene would go on for a few hours, with a succession of cars taking turns knocking the guy over, but no, Ethan and Sarah just get into it (leaving the electrified Bruce behind), and drive off. A bit later they are randomly dropped off near a beach (because lovers like to walk along beaches, right?), and as they walk away, the woman driving the car turns into… Robert Forster! Every movie should have Robert Forster materialise whenever they can’t think of a way to resolve a situation.
While the romantic leads sleepwalk through their lines, on the other side of town a bunch of FBI dudes sleepwalk through their own lines, and agree that Buraki is following Sarah, and is located in a cave nearby. They seem to arrive at this conclusion through divine intervention, because even though they act like there’s proof it’s following her and momentarily hiding in a cave, they don’t show it. They do have one elusive thing they can be proud of finding; a picture of Sarah smiling! It’s an endearingly goofy picture.
Thanks to this snake-finding breakthrough, a bunch of tooled up guys with guns go to the cave, though I wonder if anyone told them they would be going up against an enormous evil snake, as their reaction to Buraki’s dramatic appearance is to freak out, fire aimlessly into the air, and then get killed. Actually, I’m not sure if I remember Buraki killing any of them. Instead they get blown up by Evil General, who seems to thrive in non-road environments.
Sarah and Ethan go visit a hypnotist neuroscientist or something (played by Holmes Osborne, completing a 2007 bad movie two-fer with Southland Tales). In an echo of John Boorman’s catastrophic Exorcist II he sticks electrodes on Sarah and triggers a flashback (thankfully a short one) for no apparent reason, and Buraki finds them, for no apparent reason, before chasing them. Leaving behind Holmes Osbourne, they get away. For no apparent reason. If the overused motif of I Know Who Killed Me is making everything blue, the overused motif here is events happening because Shim has decided they have to. It’s a perfect example of inept plotting, and should be shown in film schools as a warning. I Know Who Killed Me has some clumsy plotting and dimwitted flashbacks that fill up time, but nothing on this scale.
After escaping Buraki Sarah and Ethan meet up with Bruce (who isn’t dead even though they left him behind with Evil General), and then go for a coffee to chat about their day. The scene ends with, yes, Buraki appearing out of nowhere. He/It crashes through some walls, stops them getting away by throwing a car at them, and then waits around instead of attacking them, giving a bunch of cops time to shoot at him (and no they don’t transform into a mini-army of Robert Forster, which is a shame). Their gunfire stops Buraki in his tracks, giving Ethan and Sarah time to escape. Bruce, on the other hand, gets left behind.
Luckily this confrontation triggers the best scene in the movie, an effects tour-de-force with Bulcos, Dawdlers, Shaconnes and Atrox (Atroxes? Atroxi? Erm…) attacking L.A. en masse. It means nothing, and is only there to get the punters in, but it’s great anyway.
It’s on a smaller scale than the similar scenes at the end of Transformers, and doesn’t work narratively (more as a sequence of cool shots), but it’s still worth watching the movie just for these scenes. As before, the FX shots are much more vibrant and imaginative than the rest of the movie. I would say it’s down to some second unit director’s superior understanding of filmmaking, but from that SciFi Japan feature, Shim was indeed on set in LA, firing his ADs for worrying about tanks ruining the roads. Unless he was joking. The only things that let the scene down are a couple of less than perfect effect shots, and a bad bit of editing that leaves a bunch of tanks and machine-gunners firing at an empty street.
While chaos reigns, Ethan and Sarah climb to the top of a skyscraper so they can catch a helicopter out of there, only to find that snakes can climb things, a point proved by the appearance of Buraki up in their respective grills. Stupidly they hop onto the helicopter, which is promptly grabbed by Buraki. With no hesitation, Ethan and Sarah leap out, leaving the pilot behind. He dies moments later.
While Buraki is peppered with minigun shells, our undynamic heroes get back to street level and are found by Chris Mulkey and the Mulkey-Flunky, who whisk them away to a basement somewhere. Good idea, I thought, until Mulkey pulls a gun on Sarah and threatens to kill her, stating that the only way to stop Buraki is to destroy the Yu I Joo. It’s an amazing moment. He knows about this shit? How? He’s not mentioned any of it for the entire rest of the film, but now he knows all about it? It’s… I just… Oh, what’s the use. Thankfully the Mulkey-Flunky knocks him out, or shoots him, or something. I can’t remember the details as I had my head in my hands for a few minutes. They get away, though. And leave the flunky behind.
So they escape! For two minutes, and then a bunch of Bulcos blow their car up, enabling them to capture our heroes. I have no idea how long they are meant to be unconscious, but when Ethan wakes up, he’s on the steps of an enormous structure that looks way too much like Barad-Dur. I’ve never been to LA, but I think I’d know if an enormous evil-looking obsidian castle was built nearby. Still, suck on that, Jackson. He’s filming in LA, not a field! Loser.
Buraki, Evil General, and thousands of Atroxesixi are in attendance, waiting for Sarah to cough up the Yu I Joo, but Ethan’s having none of it. Using some wondrously inept fight moves he battles Evil General, getting thrown around like the bundle of second-hand clothes he looks like, and is about to be killed when Evil General’s sword touches the amulet which had been forgotten about by everyone, and it activates, killing all of the Atroxiites and Evil General in a burst of mystical CGI whooshiness. Hooray! This seemingly summons the fashionably late good Imugi, and a battle ensues between him/her and Buraki. Taking a cue from Ethan, it is crap at fighting, and it looks bad until Sarah decides, “Fuck this, I’m bored,” and burps up the Yu I Joo.
Just as Buraki is about to grab it, she moves it with magical powers so that the good Imugi can get it, in the biggest and most dramatic “psyche!” moment in film history. With that the good Imugi becomes a Celestial Dragon, complete with funky chinese-dragon-whiskers, and the battle is won easily. It’s another terrific FX sequence. However, don’t get thinking it’s going to end well. Sarah dies in Ethan’s arms, and then appears before him as, I shit you not, a glowing fairy, promising to love him forever in Heaven. At this point, Canyon and I were torn between laughing our asses off and shouting swearwords at the screen.
The best part of that is that both the good Imugi and Sarah the Dragon Fairy both float off to Heaven, leaving Ethan behind. Yeah, how does that feel, you inconsiderate asshole? If only Bruce could feel the schadenfreude.