D-WAR: DRAGON WARSPG-13
I may be tilting at windmills, but this dragon epic from South Korea slays me. One hilariously entertaining time at the cineplex—until it gets to the climactic battle sequences, at which point it gets seriously entertaining—it's a throwback to good ol' Godzilla movies, or at least those in between "dramatic nuclear allegory" and kiddie-zilla. And heaven knows it's more fun the American Godzilla (1998) or the similar dragons-vs.-the-military movie Reign of Fire (2002).
Released as simply D-War on Sept. 1 in South Korea—where the years-in-the-making production is that nation's biggest-budget movie at $30 to $33 million, according to Korean and stateside reports—it set an opening-weekend box-office record in its native land. To put this in perspective, the reviled flop Arthur and the Invisibles is France's biggest-budget movie and packed ’em into theatres of Paris. That said, D-War: Dragon Wars, as it's awkwardly titled here, is no dumber than Transformers.
Writer-director Shim Hyung-rae loses something in the translation with this primarily English-language movie, filmed in Los Angeles with American actors. His CGI-fest of serpents not only is poorly written and directed, but somehow bestows the Keanu Reeves Wooden Acting Award not only on Jason Behr but also on such veterans as Robert Forster and Elizabeth Peña. This is a bad, bad movie—yet transcendently so. We've all heard of movies so bad they're good, and some folks have them on DVD, in captivity. But how many of us have seen one in the wild?
Yet along with this fun, do-it-yourself-"MST3K" factor, D-War after an hour or so shifts into one terrifically choreographed and satisfyingly long battle sequence between the U.S. military and such well-imagined beasties as a 200-meter serpent, dinosaur-sized armadillo-thingies with organic, revolving rocket-launchers, and small flying dragons like raptors with wings. Getting back to the dumb-fun part, we also get a mystical evil general (Michael Shamus Wiles) who may very well have done time fighting the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers alongside Lord Zedd and Rita Repulsa.
The story? Incredibly convoluted. When something resembling a giant lizard-scale is unearthed in L.A., young cable-news reporter Ethan Kendricks (Jason Behr, late of TV's "Roswell") remembers an incident in his boyhood. Left by his father to watch over an ailing antique dealer, Jack (Robert Forster), Ethan learns that the old man and he are the reincarnations of a Korean sensei and his apprentice. We then flashback within the flashback to feudal Korea, where in a subtitled sequence we learn that the good giant serpent Imoogi and the bad giant serpent Buraki are vying for a life force called the Yuh Yi Joo, which will allow one of them to ascend to dragonhood. The Yuh Ji Yoo was hidden in a young woman, who at 20 would sacrifice herself so that a good dragon would protect humanity. But when the bad serpent is about take the life force instead, she and the apprentice leap off a cliff into the sea—putting things on hold until everybody gets reincarnated in 500 years.
Once you get through this clumsy backstory—which at least gives us a feudal village under siege by a supernatural army—then you can settle in and laugh at one wonderfully stupid bit after another. But when downtown L.A. becomes a battlefield of F-22 fighter jets and Abrams battle tanks against dragons and other mystical beasts and warriors, well...it's really cool! What else can you say.