September 21, 2007

DVD Review: Dragon Heat

With an eye carefully turned towards the international market, Daniel Lee brings together an international cast in his highly-stylized action extravaganza, Dragon Heat. Originally released to the international market with the title Dragon Squad, the 2005 Maang lung has finally made it across the waters, landing on DVD courtesy of The Weinstein Company and their Dragon Dynasty imprint. Now, if you are a fan of Asian action, Dragon Dynasty is a label you are likely already familiar with. If you are not, do yourself a favor and take a look at what they have to offer. Dragon Heat is not have a heck of a lot of martial arts action, but it delivers some nicely realized gun fights.

The story in Dragon Heat does not make a lick of sense. As I watched I was never quite sure why anyone was doing what they were doing. This is a movie that is purely about the action. Not only that, it is about just how stylish you can present said action. On the level of adrenaline fueled edge-of-your-seat thrills, this completely delivers. If you are looking for a story that holds together upon any level of investigation, you would be best served to look elsewhere. I will say that the thin story is better than War, but that really doesn't say much.

The film opens by delivering some background on a guy called Panther who is about to stand trial and bring down a large Triad operation. In order to put this guy away, a group of law enforcement officers are brought in to testify at the proceedings. Most are Interpol agents, but there is also a Hong Kong officer, and at least one other organization represented. Not that it matters where they came from, the fact remains that they are there and ready to do their part. Each is introduced via flashback showing their specialty, be it as a sniper, a driver, or a gun handler. Each clip is completely unnecessary and repeated ad nauseum throughout the film, whenever it is thought that we needed to be reminded (not like it has any relation to the plot). We get the same introduction for the bad guys which have a couple of faces familiar to American audiences in Maggie Q (Live Free or Die Hard, Balls of Fury) and Michael Biehn (Terminator, Grindhouse). Also putting in some face time on the side of right is martial arts legend Sammo Hung. During the initial fight, watch closely and you will see another legend, Gordon Liu, in a cameo role.

Back to the story. During the transport of Panther (sporting a big ol' mohawk) the well-armed para-military bad guys (led by Biehn) ambush the police van and its escort. This results in a big shoot out as the police drop like flies in the face of a hail of bullets. This is but the first of many perfectly staged action set pieces. Following this daring kidnapping, the witnesses band together to track down Biehn and his gang in order to set things right. Apparently, their respective agencies have given them whatever time they need as no other crimes are happening. From here on out the story gets a little muddy. All we really need to know is that the kidnapping has triggered a fast escalating war between the bad guys and the good guys. All of those involved have been set on a collision course which will result in a series of explosive encounters. There is also an odd framing device of one of the Interpol agents videotaping everything. I am not sure what purpose this was to serve, as it never really played into the plot.

OK, with the story out of the way are you interested in how the action plays out? Of course you do, it is the only reason to watch this in the first place. I already mentioned the daring kidnapping sequence from early in the film. It is worth saying that it is the perfect tablesetter for what is yet to come. Later on there is a showdown in a warehouse between a couple of players from each side that involves some gunplay and outright fisticuffs. It is not the longest or best scene, but it does have a certain stylish quality to it. A little later on we are treated to the centerpiece gunfight. It takes place in an alley with shredded paper blowing through the air. There is a two directional blast taking place at street level while rival snipers take shots at each other from the rooves. The final sequence features a series of one on one battles involving guns, fists, and machetes. Dragon Heat features a few smaller altercations throughout that will also excite the action aficionado.

One more time back to the story side of things. While the overall plot did not really click, there were a couple of smaller tales weaved in that paid off. First up was Michael Biehn's desire for revenge for the death of his younger brother years earlier. Then there is Sammo Hung, who had a past with one of the main bad guys, dating back to a disastrous gun battle that resulted in the deaths of a number of police officers. We get backgrounds on the main good guys, but they come across as a bunch of emo kids with "cool" haircuts. Whatever.

The movie is definitely worth your time, so long as you don't want a story. The action successfully carries the film along to its conclusion. On a side note, Dragon Heat has one other familiar name attached to it: Steven Seagal is one of the executive producers. If only he made an appearance....

Audio/Video. We get both the original Cantonese (with some English) and a full English dub in Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes. The sound is good, nice balance between dialogue and the plentiful gun blasts. Video is anamorphic 1:85:1 widescreen and is just as good as you would expect from a recent production.

Extras. Like the rest of the Dragon Dynasty line, thereis a nice selection of bonus material.
  • The Making of Dragon Heat. Not your traditional featurette. There is a lot of pop music and some voice over and plenty of on set footage. It is neat, but nothing terribly substantial. (28 minutes)
  • Illegal Alien: An Interview with Michael Biehn. Interesting interview with Michael reminisching on how he became involved with the project and how different it was from everything he had worked on before. (16 minutes)
  • Who Dares Wins: An Interview with Lawrence Chou. Chou talks about his beginnings as a singer and then moving into producing and then stepping into acting. He talks about his experience with the film and working with Daniel Lee. (10 minutes)
  • Rare Deleted Fight Scene. This is a Sammo Hung fight in a gas station that is pretty cool, except for the (obviously) fake baby that is held hostage at knife point. It strikes a tone that would not have fit the movie. Good to see, but glad it was deleted.
  • Commentary with Co-Producer and Hong Kong Cinema Expert Bey Logan. Logan really knows his stuff, although he can be a little dull at times. If there is one thing he does on all the tracks I've listened to, its provide a tone of information.

Bottomline. Plenty of action and a shoestring story combine in just the right mix to provide a thrilling action film. Plot is purely secondary to the stylish action sequences. For action aficionados do yourself a favor and check this out. It may not be the best you'll see, but I am sure you will enjoy the ride.



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