And so the crap begins. Or possibly not.
This is the first entry into ‘Was I Nuts’ Summer 2016 retrospective of 1996’s quartets of disappointments. Unlike past entries where the focus was on movies I adored in the past I hadn’t seen in years, even decades, the next four months are dedicated to those flicks of which greatness was expected and, at best, mediocrity was received.
We begin things with the old blockbuster staple; a talking animal. Sure the animal is a mythical beast, but nonetheless, isn’t the talk-talk element part of the draw of DragonHeart?
Released on May 31, 1996, DragonHeart was a blend of medieval hack-and-slash swordplay and the ever-geeky love of dragons; it also really doubled-down on the notion a main character being built entirely from computer effects. This wasn’t the first film to attempt such a feat, but in 1996, special effects on this level were still such an infancy as to be a major talking point.
The creature here is Draco, a massive, and is this tale last, dragon. Voiced by Sean Connery, Draco teams up with Bowen (Dennis Quaid), a man whose job is killing his kind. Both in desperate times, Draco and Bowen team-up to con the countryside, before having to eventually deal with the cruel, vicious King Einon (David Thewlis), who happens to share an important history with the flame-breathing behemoth.
Expected to be significant hit by its studio Universal, DragonHeart was welcomed tepidly. Reviews were literally split, garnering a 50% on Rotten Tomatoes. The box-office wasn’t much better, opening in third place behind Mission: Impossible in its second weekend and Twister, which in its fourth weekend had more people buzzing about its natural disaster computer wizardry than DragonHeart’s monster magic. The movie would wind up ranking at #30 for 1996, before slowly growing a small cult following and having two spin-offs more than a decade later that went straight-to-video.
A casual Dungeons & Dragons nerd at 14, the premise of DragonHeart certainly drew me to the theatre upon its release, alongside some fellow nerds. The reaction was as lukewarm as the majority’s, as I found the film to be clunky in its telling with a dull dynamic between Draco and Bowen. As a dumb teenager, I wanted more dragons turning towns and people into burnt bits and less chit-chat. Beyond that, it has always remained in my head as a dull, let-down and quickly forgotten in between the hullaballoo of that summer’s towering movie smashes Twister and Independence Day.
Frankly, DragonHeart has the chance to be laughably bad. Directed by Rob Cohen, he of Alex Cross, Stealth, xXx and a lot more crap, along with the original The Fast and Furious installment in all of its Point Break wannabe-ness, a fantasy outing by this man doesn’t sound appealing. Plus, there is a definite concern that an effects heavy production like this, using tools that were still fairly fresh, might have aged in an embarrassing manner.
Or not. I didn’t even remember Dennis Quaid was in this thing, let alone Julie Christie, Jason Isaacs or the terrific David Thewlis. So…
When I was 14, I thought Jim Carrey was the funniest man alive, a fact I’ve covered in the past and will dive into again next month. When I was 14, I was sure the Pamela Anderson dystopian action flick Barb Wire was quality stuff. When I was 14, I thought Live was one of the best bands on the planet. When I was 14, I was wrong about a lot of things.
Oddly enough, I wasn’t wrong about DragonHeart, as despite a nearly two-decade absence in my life and many a taste evolving, I find the movie the same, mostly, bland blockbuster I did at 14.
Certainly not altogether terrible, Rob Cohen’s movie is a mishmash of tones and one-note characters that peaks at the 50-minute mark. Things open up as we see Dennis Quaid’s Bowen training Einon, a whiny prince and soon-to-be king. That soon-to-be-ness comes quick as Einon’s greedy, cruel father killed. Einon isn’t exactly in a good spot though, as he nearly dies and only survives via a heart-transplant. This being a movie with a big fucking dragon voiced by Sean Connery, this heart-transplant comes from a big fucking dragon, who splits his blood-pumper with the little shit.
Much to Bowen’s surprise, because he’s apparently daft, Einon turns out to be as bad, if not worse, than dear-old-dad. Bowen blames the flame-thrower and decides, in a series of edits that come laughably quickly, that he’s going to hunt down and slay every last dragon. Alright then.
A bit rushed and portraying Bowen as kind of blind fool isn’t an especially great starter, this opening is the worst part of the movie until, well, the last part. It is in the creamy middle where DragonHeart actually entertains. We do a, hell, even faster jump to “12 Years Later” as Bowen has butchered every last dragon and also managed to age negative days in the process. Our protagonist then meets Draco, Connery’s previously only seen in shadows creature. They duke it out in a lengthy action sequence that, frankly, recalls the work of Sam Raimi. Sure there’s the obvious use of the camera as point-of-view. Additionally though, the tone hits that kind-of-camp, just fuffing around schtick of Raimi’s. Quaid’s Bowen smacks headfirst into trees as Draco drags him through a forest. An eventual draw is had, with Bowen quite literally stuck in Draco’s giant jaws, holding a blade to the monster’s mouth.
The bond that takes over this portion of the movie is intriguing. Each side is amused and surprised at the skills and backgrounds of the others. Draco admires Bowen’s morality, even if he finds it a tad quaint. Bowen sees Draco as more than a terror to kingdoms and towns everywhere. They may be really basic models for characters, but the shell is enough. The decision to team-up and fleece some locals for fake-dragon slaying provides good laughs. The effects through this all hold together mostly well. When our digital fellow swiftly moves, lunging at foes or crashing from the skyline, the rendering feels akin enough to modern movie-magic. It’s in the quiet, particularly the non-night scenes, where the lack of detail, both in design and fluidity, sticks out.
Of course, DragonHeart’s issue never was a computer based one. Somehow, 20 years on, DragonHeart managed to disappoint me again. In the back of my head, I recalled while watching that the whole storyline with King Einon was a bore. However, I had no appreciation for the talent of David Thewlis at the time, and figured there was a really vital opportunity for that character to work better now because of this fact. Oh well. Einon is still a paper-thin structure, even in the hands of Thewlis. He mopes about the poor, Bowen, the poor again, mom, dad and whatever else. Einon pops into the party at just under an hour into the picture, driving down any momentum the script had until then. Talk of revolution is hinted in the air and for a brief time Draco and Bowen go back to their sneaky game, but the air is out of the balloon. The screenplay has to keep cutting to Einon harping on about not having enough juice-boxes.
The premise of Einon’s heart and health being intertwined with Draco’s is as muddled as memory serves, coming off as a plot device versus plot stirrer. Even when it concludes, with Einon essentially defeated and kicked to the curb, it barges in the door for an emotional payoff that is more illogical than heart-wrenching. Not helping matters is Cohen’s inability to present that or allow any other serious moment to simmer. His handling of the drama is basically less music, quieter talking from his actors and two-shots. Only a man of Cohen’s infrequent skills could make a movie with this cast and have forgettable performances by the likes of Thewlis, Jason Isaacs and Julie Christie.
That twenty-to-thirty minute bit after the first act though, pretty good. Put that on the anniversary blu-ray.