Dragon Blade: The rebranding of Jackie Chan

For much of his early cinematic career, Jackie Chan acquired fame and fortune playing the ‘kung fu clown’, harnessing his martial arts skills and his lightning-quick reflexes in the cause of slapstick humour (and death-defying stunts). But in recent years, he has been assiduously working to rebrand himself as an actor who channels gravitas in the Robert De Niro mould. Dragon Blade, of which Chan is executive producer, is only the latest attempt at repositioning his film persona.

Dragon Blade invokes a contested theory about the presence of Roman legionaries along the Silk Route in western China around the 1st century BCE and frames a war drama around it. Chan plays Huo An, an orphan of war, who, along with his followers, is sworn to keep the peace in the badlands along the Silk Road. Banished to hard labour in China’s ‘Wild West’ after being framed, Huo An nevertheless exudes sagely pacifism and prevails upon the warring ethnic tribes to stay united. And when Roman legionary Lucius turns up, along with a blinded Roman prince, Huo An wins his trust with wisdom and compassion.

Genre: Action, historical fiction
Director: Daniel Lee
Cast: Jackie Chan, John Cusack, Adrien Brody, Peng Lin
Storyline: A Chinese propagandist film about ethnic ‘unity in diversity’ that masquerades as an action drama.

Lucius (played by John Cusack) has a back-story for why he’s roaming around in the wilderness: it revolves around the evil-minded, patricidal Roman emperor Tiberius (Adrien Brody). The rest of the rather protracted film is about how the ‘strategic alliance’ among Huo An, Lucius and the 36 hitherto-warring ethnic communities defeats Tiberius’ army.

The scriptwriters have taken liberties with historical fact, but the storyline barely matters, for the whole thing is an unvarnished Chinese propagandist framework to play up the cultural meme of ‘unity in diversity’ among China’s ethnic minorities. There are several disjointed set pieces that serve no purpose other than to work like a cultural tableau at a National Day parade. Chan and his men break out into a training routine; each ethnic community then showcases its cultural characteristics. (Not to be outdone, the Roman legionaries too give themselves over to patriotic song.) Even more unsubtly, the film projects China’s ethnic minorities as hotheads who need the civilising influence of the Han overlords.

I watched this film in 2D, but given the two-dimensional nature of the cardboard characters, I don’t think the third D would have vastly enhanced my viewer experience. The scenes that had been shot just for cheap 3D thrills — a sword being stuck in your face, for instance — seemed comical rather than visually splendid.

For all the war theatre spectacle and the Hollywood cast, Dragon Blade has the plastic shallowness of a documentary on state-owned television in an authoritarian regime. When it comes to propaganda, it has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

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Printable version | May 15, 2021 1:20:29 AM |

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