Thursday, August 13, 2009

“Dragons are partial to maiden sacrifices...I hear.”

So, thirty reviews in, we look at one of my favorite movies growing up in the 90s, 1996’s Dragonheart. Directed by Rob Cohen and featuring some of the most advanced CGI work after the landmark Jurassic Park dinosaurs, it was a family film about a knight and a dragon.

So in a 10th Century, generic European kingdom that is more or-less England, a King is killed during a peasant uprising and his heir is mortally wounded. The boy’s mother takes him to a cave where a dragon gives the lad half of his heart to keep him alive. Recovered, the young king clearly shows himself to be a douchebag, and his former mentor, a self-styled “knight of the old code” swears revenge on the dragon for corrupting the boy into evil. Twelve years later, the king is still a dickweed tyrant, a peasant girl begins seeking revenge on him, and the now-disillusioned knight works as a mercenary and dragonslayer until he comes across the last dragon alive. Got all that?

Bowen: Dennis Quaid plays the disillusioned hero Bowen. Former tutor to the prince/king, he blames dragons for his ex-pupil’s dickery, and goes on a bitter, genocidal rampage out of grief and revenge, which is great because not only does it give him a lot of room to develop an arc as a hero, but its also a nice take on the fallen knight premise. Instead of the whole “redemption equals death” thing that’s been done to, er, death in movies, we get a character being reminded that there’s something beyond petty revenge worth fighting for.

Einon: David Thewlis is the Villain, all grown up and powered by half of a dragon heart. A self-absorbed tyrant who rightfully thinks he’s invincible as long as he’s got that dragon heart beating in his chest. As far as tyrants go, he’s cold, cunning, vainglorious, usually emotionally detached from everything but capable of violent outbursts. He’s more interested in doing whatever he wants to do instead of running a kingdom, and is willing to let his lords do most of the day-to-day stuff however they see fit, since they know if they piss him off, their lives will become nasty, brutish and short.

Queen Aislinn: Veteran actress Julie Christie plays Einon’s mother, and a follower of the “old ways” She’s also shadowy and usually hiding something. After Einon’s mortal wound at the beginning of the film, it was her idea to take him to the dragon for healing. After the twelve year jump, she’s more or less decided that it was a bad idea letting her son live and starts to move against him. She also happens to hire some hilariously dressed dragonslayers as a “gift” for her son.

Draco: Sean Connery’s extra-manly voice is somehow extra-manlier when coming out of a 20ft long dragon. Draco is the last dragon, a status quo that Bowen had no small part in creating. Still, Draco’s just an old softie who doesn’t really want to fight anybody. He just wants to sit around being magical and impressing the hell out of human maidens. Draco’s extremely likable, but also has an air of tragedy around him since his fate is inextricably linked with that jerkass Einon’s.

Kara: Dina Meyer (from Starship Troopers) plays the fiery-haired and fiery-tempered peasant girl with an axe to grind against Einon. Her father was one of the leaders of the uprising that killed the king, and she herself (accidentally) caused the wound that got the whole plot rolling. Twelve years later, dad’s blinded and working in a quarry for Einon and then the king goes and shoots him with arrows because she asked him to release him from his misery. So yeah, she’s got a valid reason for wanting revenge. Eventually, she hooks up with Bowen & Draco to start up the rebellion and learns how to swing an axe around.

Lord Felton: Jason Isaacs (the British bad guy from The Patriot) plays a mustachioed and slightly foppish lord under Einon’s rule. A coward who often wears a silly hat, he’s more of an “idea man” for the king, such as when he comes up with a road tax.

Brok: Brian Thompson plays Einon’s big bruiser of a right-hand man. He’s big, and mean, and short-tempered and apparently likes falconry and that’s about the extent of his characterization because he has almost no screen time.

Brother Gilbert of Glockenspur: Pete Postlewaite (who’s been in a lot of stuff) turns in a great performance as the sheltered, over-eager scribe that’s mostly around to provide comic relief. His bright-eyed idealism contrasts greatly with Bowen’s jaded cynicism and is one of the characters who nudges Bowen along the road to redemption. After the rebellion starts up, Brother Gilbert picks up a bow and turns out to be a natural at it, leading the poor monk through his own mini-arc where he has to decide between helping good people fight bad people, and the whole “thou shalt not kill thing.” It’s a pleasant surprise that it pops up, and because its not done ironically tips Brother Gilbert over into my Badass of the Film over Bowen & Draco.

Rob Cohen, the director of Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story and xXx (the first one), does a rather good job of directing the film. The movie’s got a lightness to it, and the bright scenes, the abundance of daylight action scenes and so on all work in the movie’s favor. There aren’t many iconic scenes, but those that are work very well (and all involve Draco, not coincidentally). The Action scenes aren’t quite as good as they could be. The duel in the river between Bowen & Einon is okay. The big climactic battle is also just okay but small in scope and not particularly impressive (but at least it doesn’t have an Ewok Village). Its odd, considering Cohen’s a director who’s done quite a few action flicks, that the non-combat scenes are where the movie shines as opposed to the violence. That could just be me, though.

Now, how can I forget the two-ton dragon in the room? At the time, Jurassic Park realized CGI reptiles and set the standard, but Draco was the first time that the technology was used for a main character. It was crazy impressive at the time (yes, I saw it in theaters) and you know what? Its aged surprisingly well. Draco moves and looks real enough to keep the suspension of disbelief going strong. Draco was a technological triumph for ILM, particularly considering it was 1996.

Story by Patrick Read Johnson & Charles Edward Pogue. Characters talk like standard family-film fantasy people and Kara & Einon are largely stock characters. The pacing is largely fluid across its 103 minutes. On the surface, it seems like a fairly pedestrian kids’ film, but when you take a look at the plot, you realize it gets pretty heavy and dark in places. The stakes, while not particularly high on a socio-political level outside of one kingdom, are deadly serious for Draco, who’s worried about losing his soul as a result of Einon corrupting his gift. Bowen’s reluctance to be a hero again has him dancing on the borders of “asshole” quite a bit until they go to Avalon and he gets put in his place by the ghost of King Arthur (yes, really this is technically a King Arthur film in the very loosest sense). Characters die quite a bit. Draco and Bowen, after fighting to a standstill, come up with a brilliant scheme to scam villagers that usually ends with Draco catching a siege bolt and taking a dive into a lake (it’s a great scam while it lasts). The overall theme of the movie is about bearing sad witness to the passing of an age. That the movie still feels light and fluffy by the end is, I think, a credit to the filmmakers. Also, I don’t care if the Old Code sounds cheesy or not, I think its pretty badass.

Randy Edelman’s score continues the theme of lightness combined with an appropriate sense of ADVENTURE! There are many times when the music soars joyfully (well, its got a flying dragon after all). Its not bombastic, but then again, the movie isn’t either, and the soundtrack fits the tone perfectly. The main theme’s also been recycled by countless movie trailers and other bits.

Its quite a relief to look at Dragonheart once again and decide that yes, it is a worthy movie according to its own merits and I wasn’t just remembering it through rose-tinted nostalgia glasses because I thirteen at the time. Its not a perfect film, but what it gets right outweighs the bad, and it’s a great example of a family fantasy film that doesn’t have to be crushingly insipid. And, like other films I’d put in that category (Labyrinth and the first NeverEnding Story) its fun.

Now, the movie ends with some finality, but every now and then I hear rumors of a sequel existing. That’s just silly, because Draco was the last dragon, so of course those people must obviously be making things up when they tell me this or flip past the Sci-Fi channel and show me something they think is called Dragonheart: A New Beginning. What silliness.

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