Dragonheart (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
In the early summer sweepstakes, Warner Brothers has weighed in with Twister, Paramount with Mission Impossible, and now Universal with Dragonheart, director Rob Cohen's swords-and-sorcery saga. No prizes for guessing which is most likely to be the also-ran. Dragonheart, which not only has the kiss-of-death of a De Laurentiis being listed in the credits (Raffaella is the producer), is a remarkable example of how not to fashion a solid adventure story. Crowds craving excitement will be irritated by the numerous lulls; those hoping for something of substance will feel cheated.

Why is it so difficult to make a good fantasy motion picture? It's possible to count on one hand the number of passable efforts. Most fantasy movies, including George Lucas' Willow, the Conan twosome, and last year's Arthurian First Knight, vary from mediocre to virtually unwatchable. Fantasy is undoubtedly a rich and popular genre, but it apparently doesn't translate effectively to the fast-paced, visual medium of film. Even with ILM providing nearly-flawless special effects, Dragonheart lacks a much-needed spark. It's obvious and plodding, and only occasionally impressive.

One distinction this movie can claim is that it's almost certainly the most unusual buddy movie of the year (Kazaam not excepted). We're not talking about two mismatched cops, self- destructive lovers, or oddball losers. Instead, there's a beefy warrior-type and his new best friend, Draco, who just happens to be a gargantuan, fire-breathing lizard. You know, the kind J.R.R. Tolkien wrote about that are featured prominently in the cult game Dungeons and Dragons. In this case, the scaly beast with the house-wide wing span and man-sized teeth not only belches flames, but is quite talkative (not to mention philosophical) -- even if his voice does sound exactly like that of actor Sean Connery.

This isn't the first major screen appearance of a live-action dragon. And, although the beast is a lot more impressive here than the one featured in 1981's Dragonslayer, not even the thrill of a dragon attack can save this film. Part of the problem is that Draco, despite looking imposing, is anything but that. With Connery lending his voice, we immediately think of him as a helpful, friendly creature, and Draco's affability makes it impossible for us to be in awe. In the end, he's just Dennis Quaid's computer-generated sidekick.

Quaid, playing a knight wandering the earth in the late tenth century, gives the film's most credible performance. He's believable as the once-valorous warrior, Bowen, who, as the result of a series of bitter disillusionments, has turned to mercenary means to earn a living -- he'll kill any dragon for a bag of gold. Too bad that the character is so flatly-written. The same gripe goes for his romantic interest, a young peasant girl named Kara (Dina Meyer), who's trying to incite a rebellion against the nobles. With her obvious, twentieth-century American accent, Meyer makes Kara a living anachronism. Bowen's chief nemesis is the evil king, Einon (David Thewlis), a former pupil. Thewlis (Naked) is an accomplished actor, but his unimposing villain comes across as a pale imitation of Tim Roth's Rob Roy bad guy. Pete Postlewaite (Oscar-nominated for In the Name of the Father) portrays a roving poet/monk who hooks up with Bowen, and Julie Christie has a small role as Einon's long-suffering mother.

About the only thing rousing in Dragonheart is Randy Edelman's bombastic score. While the dragon has a fair amount of screen time, the spectacle soon wears off, and the script lacks the necessary vitality to keep us riveted. Dragonheart boasts a few worthwhile moments, like the image of a rearing Draco silhouetted against the setting sun or the standoff between man and beast with Bowen inside the dragon's maw, but there aren't enough of these.

In appearance, Dragonheart bears a resemblance to Braveheart -- there are the same kind of dirty peasants, thatched cottages, and walled castles. Unfortunately, the similarities don't extend to the battle sequences. Scenes of Bowen and Einon crossing swords generate little or no tension, and the clash of their respective armies isn't any better. While Braveheart kept us on the edge of our seats, there are times when Dragonheart has us wishing we could crawl under them.

Dragonheart (United States, 1996)

Director: Rob Cohen
Cast: Dennis Quaid, David Thewlis, Dina Meyer, Pete Postlewaite, Julie Christie, voice of Sean Connery
Screenplay: Charles Edward Pogue
Cinematography: David Eggby
Music: Randy Edelman
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: 1996-05-31
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1