Saturday, February 2, 2013

Review: Dawn of the Dragon Slayer

I went into this fantasy cheapie expecting it to be another Sci-Fi SyFy crapfest—fun to riff but not worth reviewing. As it turned out, there's some real competence at work here, and the only really silly moments are the first two scenes (only the second of which turns out to have the slightest relevance to the rest of the movie.) But unless you're more starved for fantasy than I imagine is possible nowadays, "competence" isn't enough for me to make a recommendation.

I'm going to summarize the plot a little more completely than I usually do, because anyone contemplating watching this should know what to expect, and more importantly, what NOT to expect. Dawn of the Dragon Slayer concerns a young shepherd whose lands are threatened by a dragon; when it kills his father, he joins the household of the local baron, whose beautiful and sorcerous daughter he gets involved with, much to the consternation of visiting rich-snob-guy (who has the flinty eyes of Scorpion King 1's villain and the detestable aristocratic jawline-acting of Scorpion King 3's villain). Eventually our hero discovers the faith of the long-lost "paladins" and slays the dragon and gets the girl. The rest of the tiny cast includes a widow who provides occasional insight and exposition, plus the hero's weird seer neighbor and three other peasants working for the baron. That's literally everybody.

What's interesting is that the filmmakers very obviously knew and compensated for their budgetary limitations. If the story weren't so predictable at almost every turn, this would be a real hidden gem—the performances are at least serviceable and occasionally kind of good (mainly from the old guy), the countryside is attractive and well-used, effort is made at character development, there's a consistent tone of attempted medieval realism, and the lighting? Of the many cheap fantasy movies I've seen, this one had some of the best lighting.

Budget issues are more obvious in other areas. The score is provided by a synthesizer, but at least it's not the irritating noodling you find in some cheap fantasy. Some typical genre tropes—notably a village scene, an aloof elf, or some kind of underground action—are totally absent. A few props and costumes are glaringly out of place (e.g. the golf pants, the dragon egg that seems to just be a sandblasted canteloupe).

One thing we can't blame the budget for is the story. The backstories for characters established in the first half of the film did not necessarily destine the plot to resolve in such hackneyed ways. The writers could have had the dragon turn out to be good or intelligent or something. They could have had noble-jerk-guy get redeemed somehow. They certainly could have dropped the training montage. Yes, there really was a training montage, and no, it wasn't ironic, and yes, this movie came out quite recently.

I also take issue with the title. It sort of spoils the ending (not that anybody could fail to anticipate it anyway), and it's also a bit depressing inasmuch as it sounds like this was supposed to start a franchise—or maybe it was a TV pilot. It's a sincere effort and it has its successes, but I regret that neither the characters, nor the worldbuilding, nor the tone, nor anything else here would make it likely I'd want to see Rise of the Dragon Slayer or Retirement Home of the Dragon Slayer or anything in-between.

And then there's the dragon. In maybe two shots total, the dragon doesn't look completely fake. The rest of the time, it's the typical sort of cheap CG you'd expect, but at least it's not so terribly integrated into its surroundings as to be laughable.

Maybe that's owed to the lighting. I'm honestly giving a half-star just for the lighting.

Star Score: 2 out of 5

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