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October 2007 SITE MAP   SEARCH

Dragon Heat
cast: Sammo Hung, Michael Biehn, Maggie Q, Shawn Yue, and Simon Yam

director: Daniel Lee

110 minutes (n/r) 2005
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Dragon Dynasty DVD Region 1 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Christopher Geary
Now sporting a new English-language title, Dragon Heat (aka: Dragon Squad, originally: Maan lung) boldly attempts to twin its high-energy Hong Kong roots with the slickly polished detail and depth of Michael Mann's L.A. opus Heat (1995). But, at heart, Daniel Lee's cops versus crooks thriller is another comic book movie in the purest sense of that often misapplied label: a juvenile story told with a lively mix of words and images, and in many respects this film is not dissimilar to Lee's wildly fantastic actioner, the hysterically paced Black Mask (aka: Hak hap, 1996). If Dragon Heat lacks a commendable or witty script, any honestly believable or even fully three-dimensional characters, and a genuinely intriguing plotline that doesn't rely overmuch on MTV styled shortcuts, well, no matter. It certainly makes up for all those seemingly terminal failings, while boasting scene after astonishing scene of stunningly orchestrated, photographed and editorially presented action, as only the unofficial John Woo school of Hong Kong cinema knows how to produce.

With its Asian and American stars, the US movie that this film most resembles in varied, though usually incidental, ways is Michael Cimino's Year Of The Dragon, a similarly over-stylised production frequently lauded by action fans and derided by critics for its questionable merits and genre values. Dragon Heat frames a series of ballistic confrontations between crack teams of techno-literate and quick thinking shooters. It follows the usual formula of peerless fighting sequences interspersed with moments of cloyingly emotive drama hardly balanced out by the tragedies of fallen comrades and lost or dying loved ones.

Here's the gist. A group of young law enforcers or security agents from the SAS (do they really have Asians in that British regiment?), Interpol, a former special forces sniper, and the quintessential pretty lady cop from a local undercover police unit, assemble dutifully to give their damning evidence in the trial against international criminal Panther Duen (Ng Doi-yung). However, this bad guy is promptly snatched from custody before reaching the courthouse, and so the newly minted team of promising officers are left without a mission. In the principal - or, well, the only - clever plot twist, Mr Panther has not been rescued - as it first appears - by his equally crooked brother, Tiger (Ken Tong), he's actually been abducted by an old military rival, now a powerful and power crazed enemy, who intends to destroy the Duen brothers' empire of crime, and eliminate the elite team of agents on his trail, in a series of deadly traps and shootouts. Each team of combatants have their own trademarks and gimmicks. Mercenary troops and henchmen use wire snares to haul unsuspecting officers upside down into the air, while also callously releasing captives still gagged and blindfolded as walking-dead booby traps or decoy targets.

Our heroes demonstrate a unique flair for gunplay-on-the-fly that's cool, of course, but it hardly seems like the result of paramilitary training or hard-won experience. The movie's nonetheless charismatic leads are formally introduced by distinctively showy thumbnail biog notes (think of that opening sequence from Walter Hill's Extreme Prejudice, 1987), which do at least get all that normally tedious form of backstory telling out of the way quickly and successfully. But that's not all you get in this repetitious mode of exposition, as there's some video-insert asides and other bits of poseur business to further highlight individual skills and quirks. The heroes are reluctantly led into the rather low-key finale by demoted cop, Long (Sammo Hung), a somewhat pragmatic loser unfairly blamed for the deaths of other cops, but who rises to the bait when facing down the villain who fled justice during that earlier slaughter, seen here albeit ever so briefly in another one of the interminable prequel-style flashbacks. Captioned chapter-headings break what meagre narrative lessons are offered into quickly digestible chunks.

Having just established a Hollywood presence and screen persona with fighting girl supporting roles in Mission: Impossible III and Die Hard 4, Hawaiian-born model turned action movie star Maggie Q (Naked Weapon), here shows us just where she acquired that combat-ready game face. For Dragon Heat, she plays a Vietnamese army sniper who's every bit as proficient at shooting up flak-jacketed troops as her gung-ho male co-stars, and it's while taking aim from her favoured rooftop vantage point that she manages to kill heroine, Suet (Shengyi Huang, Kung Fu Hustle, 2004). In Ms Quigley's cemetery showdown with the cops' own sniper dude, she becomes the proverbial angel of death, swooping down from a tree to incapacitate and maul her wounded and desperately struggling victim, before finally meeting her demise in a sudden reversal of fate.

Although it's a trifle odd to find Michael Biehn playing a top bad guy in this eastern adventure, he adapts to this 'outsider' role with considerable ability, making Petros a resourceful stranger in a foreign land. Indeed, Petros remains subtly menacing, even when he's routinely charming Tiger Duen's abandoned girlfriend, Yu Ching (the delightfully named Bingbing Li), yet ultimately he's a sympathetic presence in this chillingly soulless vacuum, and Biehn's star qualities enable him to deliver the only serious and worthwhile performance in the movie, except for that of veteran Sammo Hung. US star Steven Seagal is credited as one of the executive producers, and it's a shame he wasn't able to contribute a screen appearance here. His light-hearted approach would surely have benefited this largely humourless drama.

Dragon Heat might be a confrontation short of the overall intensity of the Infernal Affairs trilogy, and it lacks the sheer heartfelt exuberance or idealistic teen appeal of the Young And Dangerous series. That said; a couple of the action sequences in this film deserve the attention of every genre fanboy. A decisive shootout ends the second act with copious gunfire, frantically shouted commands ("Cover me, ok?" ... "You, cover me!"), furious sparks from ricochets, the bright rapid yellows of muzzle flashes, and flurries of paper shreds in a breeze, leaving a backdrop of bullet-holed props and scenery plus the odd crashed and burning vehicle in a grimy shadow-less alley. Later, mentor Long has a score to settle with his lurking arch foe in a machete duel, brimming with sweaty machismo and festering hatred. Despite all the fast-cut composition of Steadicam work, close-ups and slow-motion, Dragon Heat avoids the incoherent snapshot-editing style of Michael Bay, its comprehensive mastery of constructive and wholly inventive choreography easily redeems whatever degrees of failure are blatantly evident in its hackneyed writing, or viewing disappointment in such a by-the-numbers scenario.

The special collector's edition DVD extras include: Illegal Alien - an interview with Michael Biehn, Who Dares Wins - interview with actor Lawrence Chou, there's also a commentary track by genre cinema expert Bey Logan (who co-produced this film, and has a minor cameo, too), a making-of featurette, and one deleted scene. Buyers (sadly, this isn't a rental disc) can opt for the English dubbed soundtrack, or enjoy the original Cantonese (both audio tracks available in Dolby digital 5.1 but only the Chinese version has DTS format), and there are subtitles in English or Spanish.

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