“If a dragon falls in the forest and nobody gets to hear about it … does it make a thud?”
Once the post-Jurassic Park floodgates had opened up, all manner of CG rendered beasties tumbled out in a welter of the good, the bad and the downright ludicrous.
One of the most successful in terms of fully-fledged CG characterisations to come leaping, bounding, flying and, in this case, frying was Draco the Dragon, created by ILM, directed by Rob Cohen and voiced, somewhat surprisingly, by Sean Connery in Universal’s enjoyable, if ultimately quite disposable fantasy romp from 1996, Dragonheart. A pet project for Cohen, nurse-maided by him throughout a troubled development that found him struggling to find an effective way in which to create his mythical star, the film now makes its first foray onto Blu-ray.
Cinema is stuffed with dragons. There’s the one that Sinbad’s crossbow despatched in his Seventh Voyage and the goofy pink one that befriended Pete for Disney. They did their best to destroy the world during their Reign Of Fire, whilst their oriental cousin, Godzilla, did much the same thing with atomic-fuelled fury. The dreaded Jabberwocky had a wicked sense of firebrand humour, and Shrek’s Donkey even had a touching love-affair with one, for God’s sake! And don’t even get me started on girls with Dragon Tattoos! But the best, and most frightening, by far, was the ferocious, epoch-changing Vermithrax Perjorativ who barbequed princesses and did its utmost to evade the attentions of Disney’s curly-mopped Dragonslayer. With Hollywood’s penchant for the buddy-buddy system, kick-started by Butch and Sundance and firmly entrenched by Riggs and Murtaugh, it was only a matter of time before they thrust a winged-flamethrower into partnership with a laconic, yet haunted hero. The result was a duo forged by flambé but singed by cliché.
Cohen and Rafaella De Laurentiis had had success with a dragon of a different variety just before this project. Dragon – The Bruce Lee Story had been quite well-accepted and critically applauded and had provided Jason Scott Lee with a terrific star-turn opportunity that he hasn’t, to this day, been able to deliver on. But this was a story that was very close to Cohen’s heart and his enthusiasm was enough to win over De Laurentiis, who was, after all, a member of a filmmaking dynasty that had unleashed monsters of every description (and with often appalling results) without batting any eyelids – to wit, King Kong ’76, Orca Killer Whale, The White Buffalo (all of which I’m actually very fond of!).
It is the sunny (!) Dark Ages in a land of rolling meadows, lustrous woods and fertile plains. Noble knight, Bowen (Dennis Quaid) has been training and tutoring the young Prince Einon (Lee Oakes) in the fine art of swordplay, chivalry and moral fortitude. A Knight of the Old Order, Bowen is sworn to a code of honour handed down from the great King Arthur. Sadly, the boy’s father has no such refinement, decorum … or mercy. Clamping down on some rowdy villagers sick of his cruel laws with fire and sword, he falls foul of a booby-trap and gets himself righteously slain by those he sought to oppress. Rushing impetuously to his rescue, the Prince realises that his time has finally come and, with grim satisfaction, seizes his father’s crown and seeks to gain the throne. But fate conspires to throw him a curveball and, evading the attack of a peasant girl, he skewers himself through the heart on a conveniently sharpened wooden stake. Heroically riding to his aid, Bowen whisks the stricken lad off to the safety of the castle, whereupon it becomes apparent that he will not survive the wound … unless the Queen (Julie Christie) calls forth a favour from an old friend, an ancient dragon secreted in a mystical cavern.
With the fragile oath that the new king will be just and fair and merciful, all the things that his father wasn’t, the dragon bestows the gift of half his magical heart to replenish the life of Einon, a deed that will entwine the destiny of the two. Bowen witnesses the act and honours the dragon’s wisdom and generosity. Years pass and Einon grows into the form of David Thewlis but, sadly, he has become just as cruel and as unjust as his father before him. Bowen, too, has fallen from grace. Feeling betrayed by the new king’s decision to turn his back on the Old Code, he has parted company from the wastrel monarch and pursued a new career. Believing that it is the influence of the dragon’s heart that is to blame for the youth’s despicable nature, he now hunts down dragons wherever they are and slays them, hoping all the time that he can finally catch up with the one that cursed Einon. His crosses paths with a travelling monk, Gilbert of Glockenspur (Pete Postlethwaite), who seeks to write of the knight’s exploits in order to create a new and stirring set of myths with which to inspire and fuel the jaded imagination of a downtrodden people.
Of course, events will turn all this upon its head when Bowen finally meets up with the dragon, Draco, and he will come to understand the real power and dignity of the beast, who is now the last of his kind, and the two will band together in order to fight the evil that has consumed the land. This motley crew of offbeat renegades wouldn’t be complete without a sassy warrior lass in the ranks … and this convention is catered-for by Dina Meyer’s comely wench, Kara, who finds herself tagging along with the rustic champion and his volatile air-support. Sword-fights and dragon-flights abound, with lots of incendiary activity to add colour to what is just a simple, pared-to-the-bone tale of good and evil, redemption and comeuppance. The story offers nothing original to a genre that actually thrives upon fairytale familiarity, other than the heroic double-act themselves, but Cohen keeps the plot moving with action and humour and a hearty dollop of good, old fashioned fun.
And this is all beautifully wrapped up in Randy Edelman’s lush and romantic score. Edelman was best known for The Mask and The Indian in my Cupboard, but he had also delivered some period melodies and pastoral pieces to lighten Trevor Jones’ superbly heroic, action dominated score for Michael Mann’s epic The Last Of The Mohicans. Here, he fashions a score that is full of excitement and passion, but makes sure to craft a main theme that has the heart swooning and brings a lump to the throat. He and Cohen had a strong working relationship, having worked on Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story and he would score the lousy Stallone thriller, Daylight, straight after Dragonheart. There is a John Barry sort of grandeur to his sentimental main theme, something reminiscent of Dances with Wolves, and it lends this whimsical dragon tale all the heart it needs. The predominantly Slovakian crew bring tremendous production values to the sets and the extensive location shoot. In a lovely, though rather underused, touch we even have special makeup FX from uber-gore-creator Giannetto De Rossi, the man behind the ferocious gut-slinging of Zombie Flesheaters, The Beyond and The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue. But the great offal-flinger is on tepid and restrained form here, with just a couple of tame wounds here and there. Mad Max cinematographer David Eggby relishes the wide open spaces of plains and valleys and forest ranges of a burnished Slovakia. Uniquely at home with the rugged outdoors, Eggby is also versatile and dextrous when it comes to keeping pace with the action, with the likes of Pitch Black and Ironclad to his name as well. The thunderous dragon antics and the duel down in the castle dungeons feature wonderfully fluid and mobile photography. Scenes of Draco taking on a foreign squad of dragon-slayers and their A-Team-style customised weaponry appear a little truncated, but the big forest battle and the pulverising skirmish between Bowen and the fire-breather offer up lots of frantic and well-staged, well-lensed action.
Very agreeably, the story even takes on a vibe of Sergio Leone’s awesome The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in that Bowen and Draco, just like Eastwood’s bounty-hunting Blondie and Eli Wallach’s ratty scoundrel, Tucco, form an uneasy, but mutually beneficial alliance that tricks all the local peasantry into paying the knight for despatching the pesky dragon. Naturally, this razor’s edge ruse cannot last too long, and the pair swiftly become outcasts from both the evil warlord and the peasants that they, themselves, have been exploiting. And there is another classic and revisionist Western that Cohen and writers Patrick Read Thomson and Charles Edward Pogue pay homage too. In Clint Eastwood’s genre-closing Unforgiven, Saul Rubinek rides alongside any canny gunslinger who can put up with him so that he can scribe their exploits for publication. Swap sharpshooters for errant knights and this is precisely the tactic that Postlethwaite’s Gilbert employs.
But the casting, itself, is what makes the film shine.
Dennis Quaid was no stranger to fantasy, having played a psychic dream-warrior in Dreamscape and been a futuristic Robinson Crusoe in Wolfgang Petersen’s stylish and visually atmospheric Enemy Mine. As Bowen he is agreeably cantankerous, pseudo-bitter and, naturally, devoutly heroic once he remembers his true and noble calling as a Knight of the Old Order. The essential thing about Quaid is that he doesn’t take himself too seriously, yet when emotions are called for, he can still deliver the requisite gravitas. His relationship with the dragon is certainly compelling enough to gloss over the childish nature of the scenario. He doesn’t mind sending-up his macho image with an extended farcical duel between himself and Draco.
Dina Meyer is incredibly cute and sexy as Kara. What the hell happened to her, anyway? She was hot to trot in Starship Troopers, but beyond that and Dragonheart, the gorgeous redhead seems to have vanished. She has little to no depth as the misbegotten maiden who finds reluctant companionship with the strange trio of rebels. And yet she is most definitely not the vacuous airhead that many another starlet would have reduced Kara to being. Very curvy and easy on the eye, she simmers in a stock formulaic role. As her father, Redbeard, however, Arnie Schwarzenegger fight trainer and stunt-double, Terry O’Neill is terrible. He is the oppressed peasant father who wishes his daughter would just stay out of trouble. Like Walter Sparrow’s loyal manservant, Duncan, in the fun-but-still-dreadful Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, he gets blinded by the vicious Einon and then has to act the ignominy of being all devoted and determined and beseeching at the same time as twisting his head around like Stevie Wonder. It looks absurd and is, regrettably, all very comical to behold …especially when his daughter then walks brazenly and defiantly between the loosed arrows of a taunting Einon and leaves him standing far behind her at the well and wondering just what is going on. Scouser O’ Neill would also be seen in Cohen’s rather uninspiring Kull The Conqueror, but he doesn’t fare so well here.
Every heroic family film needs to have a comedy sidekick. Well, I doubt that it is written in stone anywhere, but this cliché is now as old as the hills and highly likely to continue as long as there are rugged heroes who need to be reminded of their basic humanity by an amusing exchange here and a pratfall there. Postlethwaite had already proved what a magnificent actor he was with his portrayal of Giuseppe Conlan in Jim Sheridan’s In The Name of the Father, and he would turn hard-ass in The Lost World. But there was always an earthy humility to the Lancashire lad, and this comes over well when used to combat the obvious contrivances of the character of Gilbert. And moreover, he genuinely seems to be enjoying himself.
However, the winning card, for me, is something that so many people seem to detest. And that’s the whiny villainy of the spindly baddie.
“The peasants are revolting.”
“They’ve always been revolting, Prince. But now they’re rebelling.”
There’s no denying that David Thewlis looks like something Jim Henson threw out of Fraggle Rock in that girly-gog wig and flouncy cloth get-up, or that his accent and snidey demeanour hardly inspire shudders of fear, yet this oafish clod of preening snobbery is probably a more convincing portrayal of the arrogant bully-boys who found they could subjugate the masses simply by virtue of their birthright. This said, it is very hard to believe that he could actually go up against his former protector/trainer with any shred of physical credibility, and his fight scenes really don’t convince. Yet, I like his eccentric and petulant performance. You can imagine that if he had survived this misadventure with organ donating dragons, his character could have grown into Alan Rickman’s Sheriff of Nottingham, such is the level of juvenile smarm and pampered superego.
And there’s no getting around the idea that having Julie Christie in there was anything more than an attempt to lend the film some more learned thespic weight, but in spite of such respectability-rental she does pretty well with a role that is underwritten, yet just wayward enough from the genre path to enable her motivations to be somewhat more obscured and murky than usual.
Brian Thompson, the man with the most unfeasibly intimidating jawbone since the love-child of Bluto and Desperate Dan, has never gone beyond the task of providing stalwart support (Fright Night II) and occasional villainy (Cobra), but he certainly seems to break out of the rather conventional and generic mould that formed him with his turn as medieval henchman, Brok. With a mangy beard failing to hide that colossal chin, he looks the part too, swaggering around ramparts with looming, wolf-skin-wearing menace and riding across pleasant meadows that become scarred by his mean visage, and he tries to sound the part too, with a gravelly but deferential tone of bygone scumbaggery. But he is given so little to actually do. There is a vague hint that he might not be quite as bad as you think, but this is quashed pretty much immediately as Brok is left to merely grumble and growl. Part of the problem is that you expect Bowen to go up against him at some pivotal juncture, and although I admire the device of having this turn out to be the task of someone else, and someone far more unlikely, the pay-off cannot help but be underwhelming. But I can’t shake the feeling that Thompson was really trying to stretch himself with the role and that much of his material got chopped or diminished.
There’s a little bit more fun to be had from Jason Isaacs’ poncy Lord Felton, another preening sissy who is the camp equivalent of Einon, himself. It is a little bit odd that the film has two incredibly unintimidating bad guys as Felton and Einon, and even Thompson, is bizarrely quite a long way off being a true threat to our heroic rebels, but then this makes the overall dynamic possibly a touch more refreshing. Both Isaacs and Thewlis would go on to embroider the fantasy world still further with appearances in the Harry Potter series.
Draco was once the cutting edge of CG trickery. He was also something of a first in that Connery was portraying a fully rounded character that was rendered purely in the computer during post-production. It is a nasty sleight that people these days are so scathing about him, and mocking the fact that he does not look so grand now. I will heartily attest that the interaction with Quaid and Postlethwaite and various sundry villagers and rotten soldiers does not hold up to scrutiny, but I don’t see how you can knock something that was a high water mark at the time that it was made for not being as good as the effects work that we regularly see nowadays. It simply isn’t fair. We have nothing but praise for the original stop-motion King Kong, and all those creatures that Ray Harryhausen created, frame-by-frame, yet we all know that they don’t possess even an ounce of the realism that Draco has. Personally, I would have loved the film to have stuck with the Jim Henson designed practical puppet, but that would have been too labour-intensive and cost prohibitive. For me, the best looking dragon is still Disney’s Vermithrax, but that is only because of the sheer bloodcurdlingly evil nature of the beast that has been so painstakingly crafted into the design work. Phil Tippet’s creation here is a superb looking beast – fantastically mythical, clearly European (as opposed to Eastern), impressively muscular and full of personality. One of the things that made him so effective a character besides the personably embodiment of Connery, is the weight that he is able to throw around the screen. Like the T-Rex before him, and the Kothoga in The Relic after him, there is a palpable sense of a truly heavy body acting with all the mechanics of muscles and living tissue. Sure, he looks a little too bright and colourful – standing out from the scenery and the live performers much more obviously to the now understandably more critical eye – but he still occupies the frame with life and considerably physical gusto.
The references to King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table are not so flippant. It may be convenient to use such mythical moralising as a benchmark for our heroes to name-check, but the Johnson/Pogue timescale actually fits in with the more contemporary scholarly viewpoint about a possible real-life King Arthur Pendragon, who would have existed much earlier than any true period during the Age of Chivalry. It gets a bit tedious with everyone banging on about the “Old Code”, and the concept gets a little too hammy when we hear the ghostly voice of John Gielgud embodying the spiritual wisdom of King Arthur speaking out to the lapsed Bowen from across the ages, although, thankfully, this eve-of-battle reminder of the knight’s sworn oath to honour and nobility is not as excruciating as it could have been. At the start of the film, Draco lives down in the eerie warren of an ancient cave but can be called forth by the Queen. This is mimicked most especially by the TV show Merlin, in which the last dragon (voiced by John Hurt) resides, imprisoned by King Uther, in the deepest bowels of Camelot, but can easily be summoned to provide sage-like advice and prophecy when the need arises. For the most part though, Cohen stages his romp in the bright daylight, eschewing the usual dark and brooding environments that celluloid dragons seem to prefer.
My only real complaint about Dragonheart is that it ends just as it seems to really get going. The final battles and the dotting of the narrative’s i’s and the crossing of its t’s seems perfunctory and rushed. Draco should have more involvement in the big fight and his Aslan-like sacrifice should have occurred with a lot more drama than a simple tussle on the ramparts between his redemptive knight and friend and the ill-suited beneficiary of his cardiac-donation. But this is a small caveat in a film that places charm and fun at the forefront of its fiery trajectory.
In the wake of Draco, we had Ted Danson investigating Loch Ness and Penelope Ann Miller getting covered in monster-slobber in The Relic and, of course, George Lucas was watching all of this from Skywalker Ranch and thinking to himself, “I can do better than that.” He wasn’t entirely correct about that, of course, but down in the southern hemisphere, a certain Peter Jackson was inspired and determined enough to take such integrative effects work to the next level.
Dragonheart is no classic, but it is certainly very enjoyable. It lacks tangible menace and is short of a set-piece or two, but the weird relationship between man and reptile is strangely endearing. A climactic celestial effect is particularly woeful in the extreme, but the message of the heart being the best weapon in any warrior’s arsenal is a damn good one, just the same. The film spawned a straight-to-video sequel, also written by Johnson and Pogue but directed by Doug Lefler.
All in all, Dragonheart is still a great deal of fun.