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Dragon Hunter
cast: Brad Johnson, Erik Denton, Kelly Stables, Maclain Nelson, and David Morgan

writer and director: Steve Shimek

90 minutes (12) 2008
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Metrodome DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 3/10
reviewed by Max Cairnduff
Dragon Hunter, written, produced and directed by Steve Shimek, is not a terrible movie, if it were it would be more fun to watch. Worse, it is a boring movie. Clearly cripplingly short on budget, the film simply isn't able to deliver the fantasy action it promises, featuring long periods in which nothing much happens, not particularly quickly.

Essentially a Dungeons & Dragons adventure on film, it is the story of two brothers from an unspecified generic fantasy kingdom, one of whom is predestined to be a dragon hunter. That's handy, as dragons stalk the poorly detailed land, burning villages down and killing all within. Also problematic are roving orc warbands, and the off-screen threat of entire orc-ish armies. Personally, had I lived in one of these villages I would have considered a palisade, or perhaps a sentry tower, or some other form of defence or warning system - but then living as they do in a small village in the middle of an orc and dragon infested wilderness I'm sure they have good reason for taking no precautions against attack whatsoever - budgetary ones, perhaps.

In terms of setting, it is assumed we already know what orcs and dragons are, which of course we do. References are made in passing to Persia and at one point to elephants as a size comparator with dragons (would medieval era peasants know what elephants look like?), but mostly we appear to be in a generic vaguely Tolkienesque fantasy setting. To be fair, one doesn't buy a movie like Dragon Hunter for the background, but a little more attempt at a setting might have been nice.

Following the destruction of their village, brothers Darius (Erik Denton) and Kendrick (Maclain Nelson) head out and soon encounter the rest of the party, sorry, cast, a band of soldiers from another village. These include some incredibly annoying comic relief characters, a beautiful elven archer (played ably enough by Kelly Stables, who I hope gets better work in future), and a frankly troubling character in the form of a black berserker. The only non-white character in the film, he is a mute savage possessed of animalistic strength and ferocity, we are shown however that he is a gentle savage as he is also seen playing happily with a blonde-haired little girl (happily, she doesn't pick daisies). It's a part that would do 1930s era Hollywood proud.

Leaving that aside, the party wander through the woods, for what seemed a very long time, battle a small number of orcs in shaky-cam, which helps disguise how few there are, and reach another village. Also threatened by dragons and orcs, this village eschews the wooden buildings of the first favouring instead light canvas tents by way of construction. On the plus side, it must aid rebuilding after the inevitable dragon attacks, but were I anticipating such, I might personally choose to live in something a touch less flammable. Whatever fantasy kingdom we are in appears largely uninhabited, though I'm sure that's unrelated to local habits of settling in undefended camps among ravening monsters.

Some of the cast acquit themselves fairly well, Kelly Stables and protagonist Erik Denton do their best with frankly terrible romantic dialogue, and manage not to embarrass themselves in a scene which includes a rainstorm as symbol for sex (Shimek likes to use shots of natural imagery to build mood, which is fine, but he lingers on them too long leading to a loss of pace and suspicions of padding). Denton has it in him I think to be a decent action hero, he's not given a lot to work with here, but for me he stood out as one of the more solid of the cast (in fairness, many characters are so underwritten there's really not much the actors can do to display their talents). David Morgan also stands out as criminally underused local wizard Oswin - a man whose powers may be entirely fake, bizarrely the character gets an entire mini-story arc to himself that suddenly cuts off and fails to develop. A great shame, as Morgan brings much needed life to his dubious character and more of him would have benefited the film greatly.

The key difficulty the film has, I suspect, is lack of budget. Shimek plainly just can't afford the action sequences he wants and so instead we spend a large part of the film with artfully grimed villagers, treks through forest in which the party discuss how dangerous their journey is and intrigue that doesn't really go anywhere. Almost everyone who dies and they die off-screen, giving the impression that Shimek just can't afford the shots necessary to show them falling in battle on-screen. This could also explain why the dragons themselves barely appear in the movie and why the fights with orcs are so hard to follow (it disguises how few there are). Budget isn't the only problem with the film though, dialogue is stilted, the score often intrusive, and there is also - the presence of some clever ideas on dragon-reproduction apart - a distinct lack of originality.

I dislike giving three out of 10 to a film which likely is a labour of love, and into which as director, writer and producer Shimek clearly gave a great deal. It's an achievement that he got funding for it, but I don't think he got enough, and the result is a film that simply doesn't sustain interest even at the levels it is aiming for. Dungeons & Dragons is a game that has lasted some 25 years now, it must be doing something right, but I wouldn't pay to simply watch someone playing it and I'm not sure why I'd pay to see this either.

The extras include interviews with the cast, an interview with the animator, a behind-the-scenes documentary and the trailer (which is also available on you tube and which includes every interesting bit of the film). The interviews with the cast are particularly notable for Newell Alexander (who plays Aaron, a wise old man) essentially saying he hammed it up as that seemed to be what the genre demanded and generally talented actor Orlando Seale noting that his character (Nathan, leader of the village soldiers) didn't really have much by way of a character to bring out. Both have my sympathies, but work is after all work.

'Dragon Hunter 2' is due out in 2010.
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