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D-war review

Monday, December 21, 2009

On the tail end of a busy sword and sorcery decade D-War could be the worst of the lot.

As a CG promotional video entitled Bang For Your Buck it's passable, but putting lipstick on a bull doesn't make it sexy. It was written and directed by Shim Hyung-rae, a former Korean comedian who spent the last several years putting together this story of a 21st century American journalist bound to protect his love from the celestial ambitions of an Imugi dragon.

The abridged version: mythological creature throws a hissy fit in L.A.

When Ethan Kendrick (Jason Behr) comes across a dragon scale while on a news assignment he gets dreamy and takes us back to a pivotal moment he had as a child. Here, while in a Gremlins-style antique shop, an elaborate Korean chest opens itself to Ethan and zaps him with computer graphics. It's an overcooked way to let us know that Ethan has a special destiny.

As the shop owner Jack (Robert Forster) explains via flashbacks, he is the modern incarnation of a 500 year old Korean warrior, while Ethan is the latest version of his apprentice, Haram. A long time ago they fought together to protect the beautiful Narin from the bad Imugi, Buraki, and a too futuristic evil army, fashions care of Judge Dread. Haram gets tired of fighting and jumps of a cliff with his love.

Flashforward. Buraki, is back on the 500th anniversary of their last encounter, to do something nasty to Ethan's reincarnated love Sarah (formerly Narin). What that is...is unknown. What we do know is that she is the key to the Imugi's ascention to greatness, a dragon's higher state of being if you will.

Fine. Avoid the monster. Jack helps out them from time to time, by using otherworldly powers, but insists above all that Ethan take her to "the cave." Protect her in the meantime, but only in the cave will fulfill her destiny. Ethan refuses to believe that sacrificing Sarah is the only way. He grits his teeth, grows some stubble, and plays Ring Around the Rosie with the big snakey for the better part of the film.

While the early Korean battle scenes using both troops and creatures will look familiar to Phantom Menace and Return of the King fans, other details bear a strong resemblance to the Terminator series. The blonde haired Sarah is pursued by an almost unstoppable force, somehow ushered out of one close scrape after another by a handsome young buck with nothing special to offer in terms of abilities, just a sense of purpose.

Sounds familiar, though at least when Sarah (Conner) and Reese avoided the Terminator it was believable. How Twiddle Dee and companion consistently escape an army from hell and a serpent that can wrap itself around buildings is the real mystery. But they do for a good while, mostly due to last minute police and military invention. It gets old quickly. When they're not running Ethan and Sarah look at the sky and each other and give dramatic pause to their situation.

Historical descriptions of the Imugi make use of expressions like "is thought to have" or "is said to have. D-War at least stays loyal to one or another of these descriptions and presents the creature as one that which lives in water or caves, aspiring to become a wingless dragon. Another detail which made its way into the film was the importance of the orb to Asian dragons. The Yeo-ui-ju or dragon orb is given to the nice Imugi during the film's climax, granting it omnipotent powers and transformation into a full-fledged dragon.

Variety called the film "visually entertaining," which is accurate. But if motherly advice like "if you can't say something nice..." held any sway, it would probably end there.

One problem is the film's attempt at incorporating mythology and dragon lore into a modern setting. Reign of Fire did it far more believably, but that film also limited the fantasy element to the dragon itself. As such the focus was clear, man versus beast.

The clunky costumes and Masters of the Universe miltantcy that D-War adds in comes off like a groundbeef ice cream cone: it doesn't mix well. But beyond this, characterization may be the bigger problem. Shim Hyung-rae's interpretation of Americans is pure stock, like something taken from a beginner ESL essay, "What are American's Like?".

The news station Ethan works for is CGNN, written in obvious CNN script, and his best bud Bruce is a punning, gun toatling African American decked out in gold jewelry. As a Westerner, there's no offense taken. Shim may have written the film with more concern with how Korean audiences needed to interpret America than how a western audience would. Still, the generalizations never go any deeper.

Security guards are obese, federal agents are hard headed, and best friends must die. In one scene, after Bruce fails to dent the evil army commander with a speeding SUV, he decides to take him on outside. Even Terminator's tough guys had the sense to run when a fist went through their buddy's ribcage. Bruce is round-housed to the pavement while Ethan and Sarah grab some wheels and escape. The next morning the couple is walking on the beach, getting their bearings, when Sarah asks about Bruce. Ethan's not worried. His friend is resourceful. He'll be fine. The next day, Bruce is back at this desk with a band-aid on his forehead. It's not meant to be a joke.

At this point there's no reason to take D-War seriously. If the writer doesn't consider his characters, why should the viewer. Sit tight, enjoy the squealing monsters, and call it a day.

USA release: 14th September, 2007
Jason Behr, Amanda Brooks, Craig Robinson, Elizabeth Pena, Robert Forster, Geoffrey Pierson, Michael Shamus Wiles, Chris Mulkey, Billy Gardell, Aimee Garcia
Director: Hyung-rae Shim
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