Fight Nerd Cinema: Review of “Dragon Lord”

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Welcome back to the long-anticipated return of Fight Nerd Cinema, where this nerd takes a look at movies related to combat sports and butt-kicking. Took me long enough, but we are back for good now!

Jackie Chan is one of my favorite martial artists of the silver screen of all time. To be quite honest, I am a bigger Chan fan than I am of Bruce Lee’s work, although Lee is without a doubt the superior martial artist. No one dislikes Chan, and his films show us that he can go from a serious fight into a comedy routine at the flip of a switch, and sometimes do both of those at the same time.

“Dragon Lord” is a film by Chan from the early ’80’s, and was an interesting transitional piece for the star. Many critics consider this movie a bridge to the Jackie we would all later know and love around the world. How does this movie stand up to the test of time, and was it any good to begin with? Read the review and let’s find out!

Spoiler-Free Synopsis:

To sum up the story in one sentence according to IMBD, this film is the adventures of a restless martial arts student called Dragon, who, while constantly pursuing a girl, gets involved in the affairs of a gang of thieves. Along with his best friend, Mars, the two get into tons of trouble with their parents, as well as criminals, and somehow survive in spite of their ineptitude.

Hit the jump for the full review!

The Inside Scoop:
Released by Golden Harvest in 1982 and directed by Raymond Chow, “Dragon Lord” was an interesting piece for Jackie Chan. Taking the role of director, martial arts choreographer, and co-writer, Chan had his hands full from the start. This film would be Chan’s last period piece for nearly twelve years, as 1994’s “Drunken Master 2” would be his return to this genre. “Dragon Lord” was a farewell to what made him famous, as Chan would jump ahead into some of his most well-known movies after testing the waters with this one. Many critics consider this to be the pivotal moment in Chan’s transition into the actor and director we all admire today.

The film was originally meant to be a sequel to “Young Master” from two years earlier, especially since the original production title was “Young Master in Love”. Unfortunately for Chan, his real life was quite the opposite at this time, as Jackie was going through a harsh break-up with Teresa Teng. Combined with Chan’s drive for perfection, the production went woefully over-budget. Reports on set said that Chan would hire tons of stunt men and film scenes, only to scrap them on the cutting room floor.

Interesting piece of trivia, “Dragon Lord” was the first Jackie Chan film to include bloopers, although the version I watched did not have that feature at the end of it. Now a staple of all Chan films, Jackie got the idea from his time on the set of “Cannonball Run”, and it has now become a staple of all of his films to this day. Also of importance, Jackie injured his chin on set, rendering it very difficult for him to direct, let alone act and fight. Of course, that was not the worst injury Jackie had, but it sure did not make things any easier.

The Breakdown:

Chances are, most of us are going to watch the dubbed version of this and not the subtitled version, and we all know how fun dubs can be. The biggest distraction for me was not so much any of the dubbing, but that the voice of Leonardo from the 1980’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” cartoon did a bunch of voices in this. I can’t take anything he does seriously since I just think right away of him yelling at Michelangelo to stop dicking around and to beat up those foot soldiers. A few other recognizable voice-over actors offer their vocal chords to the dubbing as well, making for some funny quotables. Beyond that, there are some things that are lost in translation like when Cowboy starts singing a song about Indians that sounds like Randy Newman dubbed it. It’s that bad. The dubbing is laughably bad, but that really makes this film more charming for me with how over-the-top it can be.

Jackie does what Jackie does best, playing a role that he has played so many times before in his other movies – a spoiled rich kid who spends his time freeloading and causing trouble, and in the end mends his ways… at least for a little while. This time, he is pushed by Mars as his first antagonist, but the two mend their feud quickly and return to their old habits. Their relationship reminded me of Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly in “Step Brothers”, just slightly less goofy and without the brilliant use of “Hulk Hands”. Frankly, every movie should find a way to incorporate “Hulk Hands” into their stories, but that is an argument for another day. I like Mars a lot, especially from his role in “Police Story”, and was glad to see him get used as a co-star. He brings a lot out of Jackie and their relationship on screen is genuine.

The story itself is very hard to follow. There are many different subplots going on, but they are clumsy at best and the story fumbles around to try and intertwine them all. Chan was trying out new things with this film in terms of his skills behind the camera, and while he clearly learned a lot from this opportunity, the production overall is disappointing to many fans and oftentimes confusing with how things dart around and how little important things like characters get developed. On the plus side, the fight scenes are great – what few there are.

The Jianzi scene from “Dragon Lord”

“Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting” — the action scenes:

There is lots of action in this movie, but it pains me to say that there is also very little fighting. The action starts off right away with our opening scene, where we meet Jackie and his colleagues playing an unusual game of football. It starts with a human pyramid of people literally clawing at each other to get control of the ball, and turning into a tremendous dog-pile as they battle to score. It’s too chaotic with not enough actual combat to be a full-on fight scene, but it’s a great way to start things and also set the tone and look for the film’s action sequences. It is worth noting that this scene holds the records for most takes of a single scene, with Chan shooting and re-shooting this craziness over 2900 times! It was originally meant to be the end of the film, but Chan decided to push it to the beginning since he wanted a bang to start the film, and it definitely accomplished that.

After some exposition, we get to our first crucial plot point and more close-quarters fighting scene, as Dragon and Cowboy fight over the girl they are both trying to woo, while she is busy fighting off both of them. This triple-threat match is a comedy fight and is merely the beginning of the rivalry that will drive the motives of the rest of the film. Extremely short in terms of action, but critical to the movement of the story and a perfect end to the first act of this film. Following that fight is Lu Chen’s first fight against the villainous gang, which is a big low point in the movie but also thankfully short. Jackie was still growing into his own in terms of his directing skills, and while the storytelling of the scene is an improvement over his past work, he was too busy dealing with that rather than focusing on the choreography of an actor who was not a martial artist.

That scene is quickly forgotten when we get to the soccer scene (it’s actually a game of Jianzi, but whatever). This frenetic scene would actually inspire Stephen Chow to make “Shaolin Soccer” and must have been a pain in the butt to choreograph, as the actors had to worry about kicking a shuttlecock around while remembering their moves. Beginning as a competitive but fair match, the game rapidly deteriorates into a brawl between the two teams. There is some pretty fancy footwork in this scene, and is an interesting take on what fight fans are used to seeing with the fast-paced kung fu style of fight choreography. Sadly, there is little fighting in this until the end, and even then only a sparse amount of strikes are thrown, but the scene itself is still fun to watch.

The soccer match leads to Dragon accidentally kicking the shuttlecock into the face of the love interest, so he writes a love-letter to her on a kite which goes astray and lands on the roof of the evil gang. Here, we have Jackie Chan on a roof doing his best to blindly avoid spears coming from below him, which is a clever scene filled with acrobatics and tense camerawork.

As the story moves on, Dragon gets into a fight with some of the serious baddies inside a temple, and has a light-hearted fight with plenty of acrobatics and Jackie’s trademark comical martial arts techniques. Again, it’s another fun but short fight that showcases the entire stunt team and tells us more about Chan’s character. “It’s all about being the last man standing,” Dragon says to his attackers, and that means winning even if he has to fight unfairly sometimes.

That quote becomes reality when the final fight of the film occurs with Dragon and Cowboy facing off against The Big Boss (played by Whang In-Suk) in a sequence that redeems the lack of fighting preceding this scene. Our heroes are completely outmatched by The Big Boss, and spend the majority of this fight being dominated and tossed around like sacks of rice. The most amazing part is how many high-impact falls that Chan and Mars take in this scene,. We are talking about falls from a height of 15-20 feet with no padding, and when you consider how obsessive Jackie was about perfecting each stunt, that adds up to a lot of serious headaches. The whole film has set up how inadequate our two protagonists are at just about everything; they are not fighters whatsoever, just two spoiled kids who need to grow up. It’s a desperate fight for their lives, doing whatever it takes to beat this unstoppable foe and finally vindicate their selfish and callous actions. This fight made James Rolfe’s (AKA The Angry Video Game Nerd) top ten Jackie Chan fight scenes list, and it’s easy to see why.

Final Verdict:

“Dragon Lord” is an interesting conundrum for me to rate. This film is so similar to many of Jackie’s earlier films, but when you remember the time period it was made in, it was an improvement in terms of Chan’s storytelling and directing abilities. There are very few fight scenes in this film, but as we have learned in the past it’s about quality, not quantity. The fights progress the story in a way few other movies do, but it isn’t until the very end that we get our first good fight. The pay-off was worth it, but at the end of the day, did I need to sit through 80 minutes of nothing for it?

The script was a mess, even by the standards of this genre. One could argue that we only watch Kung Fu movies for the fights anyway, but I would beg to differ greatly. Fights are always enjoyable to watch when done right, but a fight with our emotions invested into it is a far greater experience. Chan did do a great job of building up his and Mars’ personalities to make the final fight more intense, but there was very little reason to care about who he was fighting or what he was fighting for. The movie plods along with things happening and action sequences to break up the main story, but if you asked me to tell you what the main story was I would be unable to. Was it a love story, was it Jackie fighting mobsters, or was it Jackie making a buddy flick? Beats me, but it sure had a kick-ass fight scene at the end.

If I had to give it a rating, and I guess I do since it’s a review, I would give it a generous two and a half stars out of five. It would have been two stars but the final fight bumped it up a notch, and I absolutely recommend the movie just to see that scene, especially with the price so low for a DVD of “Dragon Lord” on Amazon.comto begin with. Despite all of the troubles plaguing the production and personal life of Jackie, he had a happy ending after this movie was done, marrying Lin Feng-Jiao and having a child that same year. Beyond that, “Dragon Lord” was a flop in the box offices and after some depression of that and his break-up, Jackie had the realization that he needed the help of “his brothers”, and that led Chan to do “Project A” in 1983 with Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung, and that is where the modern Jackie Chan story begins.

1 Comment on Fight Nerd Cinema: Review of “Dragon Lord”

  1. Great review! I have been a massive Jackie chan fan for years and watched this on VHS many moons ago – Completely right with the chaotic storyline, even subbed it made little to no sense still – but for a true Chan fan you have to watch it and it is worth it for the final fight! Kee em coming 🙂

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