Dragon Dynasty Review

When I sat down to watch Dragon Dynasty, I wasn’t sure what to expect. As a film that started life as a Sci-Fi channel original movie, with a budget of around one million dollars, I assumed I should probably go in expecting a cheesy B- movie that was enjoyable in the kind of way that you laugh at how bad it is, rather than as a serious film. As it turns out, the film is most enjoyable when you go in expecting something sort of in between the two.

The story is fairly simple. It’s 13th century China and Marco Di Paolo (Federico Castelluccio), better known as Marco Polo, and his brother Giovanni (Aaron Hendry) have visited the Chinese emperor seeking to establish trade between Asia and Europe. The emperor’s aide Shang Sei is opposed to opening up China to Europe and as such uses sorcery to summon a pair of dragons to try and dispose of the emperor and the European travellers.

The story itself is interesting, just badly excecuted. The film moved at a good fast pace and stays accurate to the setting in many respects, and just treats it as an alternate history of a real time period. You have a sorcerer who summons the dragons, but apart from that the film remains fairly grounded in reality and doesn’t take any ridiculous leaps.

The story has two main problems. The first is that it can be predictable; several of the plot points can be seen coming a mile away. The other issue, as I said before, is that it’s just not well executed. It took me a good 20 minutes or so to actually understand the actions of the sorcerer at the start of the film, maybe three times as long to figure out where in Europe the travellers were from, and I didn’t realise who the main characters were meant to be until afterwards when I read a plot summary. The clues were all there, as on a second watch it made more sense, but they really didn’t do a good job of explaining the story they were telling as they went. They seemingly expected the viewer to have read up on the film in advance of watching it. That said, if you go into the film armed with the basic plot summary I gave earlier in this review, then I don’t think you will have the same problems with the plot that I did.

Visually, the film is again a mixed bag. The costume and physical set designs look great, and the injury makeup for the most part was strong. There was a great variety of different sets, from temples in China to coliseums in Italy and large ships, which all remained consistent in tone and helped set the mood really well. There are a couple of oddities like some visible tyre tracks on a 13th century Italian farm, but nothing that really detracts from the experience. I was generally drawn in by the sets and costumes, and there were no terrible scenes that ruined my enjoyment in that regard.

The visual issues generally stem from the use of CGI, with most of the effects being passable, but not great by any means. They occasionally are a little odd and at some points are laughably bad. There’s also an example of a scene where they have obviously edited in some stock footage of some deer, and as the only scene that doesn’t keep with the film’s consistency of colour and visual style, it really drew me out of the experience. The physical effects, like explosions and dragon flames are handled well, as is the animation of the pair of dragons, but the rest of the film’s effects stick out a little against the rest of the great visual identity.

The main cast of heroes are the Paolo brothers, a Chinese beginner spellcaster called Gao Ling (Dion Basco), whose father was killed by the dragons, and a woman called Ava (Stana Katic) , whose father was also killed by the dragons. The acting in the movie is inconsistent. There are some fantastic scenes, such as Gao’s father’s death at the beginning of the film, and a later scene involving Giovanni’s family, but the majority of the acting is wooden and dull. The characters often feel like they are just trying to get the job done and go home rather than putting their all into every scene. It’s clear watching the film that these are talented actors, but they really weren’t giving the parts the attention they deserved. I never really got attached to any of the main characters, and the only one I really cared about was Giovanni’s son, who has a very small role in the plot.

All in all I have mixed feelings about this film. Whilst it’s definitely a step above most of the B-movie fantasies that Sci-Fi puts out, it falls short of reaching that next level of more professional filmmaking. It takes itself a little too seriously to be the sort of film you would watch and laugh at, but never quite feels as polished as you would hope. There’s definitely good things to be said about it, for it’s been a long time since I’ve been so drawn in by the set design of a film as I was by this, and there are some very enjoyable moments of both character interaction and action. So long as you go into this with a little prior knowledge, and know to expect some stiff dialogue, poor performances and occasionally poor CGI, this can still be good way to spend the evening if you’re looking for a fun fantasy movie.

In closing, I feel that Dragon Dynasty is probably best enjoyed with a couple of friends. Its the sort of film you don’t have to sit and focus too hard on to follow, but has some very exciting moments. It is definitely a good action film, just don’t go in expecting a story that has too many surprises or that will trigger a long lasting discussion afterwards. Definitely worth a watch if you’re a fan of the historical setting or just want to see some awesome CGI dragons.

Dragon Dynasty is released on DVD and Blu-Ray on 14th May 2012.

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