“Dragon Heat” – A.J. Hakari

By now, most people have accepted action movies as mindless entertainment. There are some exceptions to this rule, but at the end of the day, people don’t line up for the latest Jackie Chan flick because of the story. But there’s a threshold at which not enough plot can be a burden, a line that Dragon Heat all too merrily skips across. I wouldn’t call it a failure, since it’s a self-aware film that has a good idea of what its audience wants. Still, the problem with Dragon Heat is how it delivers the goods, turning its breezy formula into a jittery mess with enough queasy camerawork to put the Jason Bourne movies to shame.

After a long and arduous manhunt, notorious criminal Panther Duen (Hugo Ng) has at last been brought to justice. But just as a group of Interpol agents (among them Shawn Yue and singer Vanness Wu) are on their way to testify against him, a team of commandos abscond with Panther before he makes it to court. Due to the heavy firepower and military tactics involved, the agents surmise that these weren’t just any crooks. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t even a rescue at all but rather a kidnapping, a revenge plot orchestrated by turncoat military man Ko (Huh Joon-ho). But with the plot continuing to thicken and more villains crawling out of the woodwork, the agents take it upon themselves to use whatever means necessary to take down his bevy of baddies once and for all.

For what would otherwise have been a simple popcorn flick that flew in under the radar, Dragon Heat sure likes to call attention to itself. Firstly, writer/director Daniel Lee seems to have taken a course or two at the Shaky-Cam School of Action Cinematography. Sure, such a style can be handy when it comes to capturing the frenetic atmosphere of an intense action sequence. Handled here, however, it’s a real pain that hinders some perfectly decent gunfights. Strangely enough, Lee’s eye is pretty stable when it comes to capturing the cops in their off-duty lives. But when the artillery is unleashed, you can expect the film to look like a meth-addicted ferret was operating the camera. It suited the film on a couple of occasions (I dug the graveyard sequence in the climax), but it made other parts almost impossible to watch. With an already anemic storyline, Dragon Heat goes to great lengths to make itself look good, only to come across with an extremely cluttered style in the end.

There are enough slow-motion effects to fill about twenty Matrix sequels, and it’s not hard to lose track of who’s who during the action sequences. Part of this is due to the unstable cinematography, but most of this is because Dragon Heat barely lifts a finger when it comes to differentiating the characters from one another. You have the obligatory newcomer and the tough girl, but the other three agents might as well have been condensed into one. Everyone ends up bleeding together anyhow, but knowing at least a little effort went into the writing would’ve been nice. The villains aren’t much better off; Maggie Q (Balls of Fury) shines as an enemy sniper, but American import Michael Biehn spends all his screen time looking as miserable as possible. I’ve seen some pretty bored performances in my time, but here, Biehn makes Keanu Reeves look like Roger Rabbit, for as much enthusiasm as he injects into the part. At least there’s good old Sammo Hung to fall back on, who seems pretty limber for a guy with his gut (though I suspect a stuntman or two were involved).

Dragon Heat isn’t an inept action flick — if it’s guilty of anything, it’s over-zealousness, of losing its aim to please viewers in a sea of flashy editing techniques. By no means is that a shining recommendation, but if you’ve exhausted your Jackie Chan library, then Dragon Heat will keep you busy until the next addition comes out.

Rating: ★★☆☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

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