After an obviously tacked-on bit of pre-credit narration, explaining the movie’s plot, D-War launches us onto the most audaciously stupid journey I’ve seen in a long time, beginning with the most audaciously stupid directorial decision of (most likely) all time: a triple flashback…explaining the movie’s plot. Again.
Ordinarily, I’d assume a poor test-screening panicked D-War‘s producers into this last minute front-loading, a glut of action scene-driven exposition hot off the Lord of the Rings press. But the vagaries of D-War offer a much simpler, and much dumber, explanation for this film’s hit-the-audience-in-the-face-with-bricks approach. Someone, somewhere, must’ve honestly thought that starting off with a triple flashback worked. Somehow, it made the film better. Marvel with me, for a moment, at such rampant idiocy, and never again ask yourself why movies often suck.
Now get ready: it seems dragons are real. Specifically, the celestial dragons of the ancient East. Once every five hundred years, a lucky Earth-bound serpent (or Imoogi to you and I), having won the favor of Heaven, is transformed into a new celestial dragon via the special application of the Yuh Yi Joo. Think of it as a spiritual hardware upgrade for giant snakes. This system has, apparently, stood the test of millennia. But some five hundred years ago, an evil serpent named Buraki decided to cut in line and seize the Yuh Yi Joo for its own, evil purposes (something about destroying the universe or some such). To protect the world, Heaven jammed the Yuh Yi Joo into the body of a girl (of course) named Narin (Hyojin Ban).
According to the obligatory prophesy, Heaven meant Narin to be Imoogi food come her twentieth birthday. Raised as an ordinary girl, albeit with a dragon tattooed on her shoulder, unwritten movie law assured she’d fall in love with her childhood friend/bodyguard, Haram (Hyun Jin Park). Said love threw a King Kong-sized monkey wrench into Heaven’s cogs. Naturally, the starcrossed lovers ended up defying both Heaven and “the evil Baraki,” committing suicide. The end.
Or is it? In our modern world…even though the movie itself begins in the modern world, flashes back to the ’70s, and then flashes even further back to the Korea of the 1500s…Haram and Narin have been reincarnated. Haram is now is a crusading reporter named Ethan (Roswell‘s Jason Behr). Narin is a cardboard cutout in a bra named Sarah (Amanda Brooks).
Ethan learns all this backstory at a tender young age (when he’s played by the tender young Cody Arens) from a strange antique store owner named Jack (TV and Bad Move veteran Robert Forster, who’s been in everything from Magnum PI to Jake and the Fatman to Maniac Cop 3 to Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle)…who just so happens to be the reincarnation of Haram’s prophecy-spouting monk of a master. Jack warns Ethan that this time there’s to be no fucking around with destiny in the name of something so insipid as “love.” He’s to do everything he can make sure Sarah is swallowed up by the correct serpent at the correct time. No Freudian innuendos there…
Ethan sits on this knowledge for at least twenty years, until a mysteriously serpentine path of destruction carves a chunk out of Los Angeles. It seems the evil Buraki’s biological (metaphysical?) clock just went off and the big snake is already shedding scales and eating elephants in anticipation of imminent godhood. Will Ethan uncover Sarah’s identity before the evil Buraki’s evil army of oh-so-obviously evil minions find her? Will Buraki consume her soul and go on to remake the universe in its own, Naga-like image? Will Ethan ever get laid with that Dimitri Martin face of his?
And can we really forgive mainstream criticism’s ignorance, labeling this the nadir of South Korean cinema? Their monumental ignorance of the daikaiju genre in general, and Korea’s contributions to it in particular, is all-too understandable. Yet even a glance at writer-director Hyung-rae Shim’s background reveals he’s already reached that nadir when he climbed into the big chair behind 1999’s horrible remake of Yonggary. Whatever it’s flaws, there was a Godzilla rip-off fit for international distribution, with jet-pack-wearing marines, alien invaders, world-saving scientists and every cliché you could ever hope for in a monster film…plus some. A bad movie by any reckoning, Younggary tried to pull the same trick as the American Godzilla movie, blending the daikaiju genre’s traditional appetite for destruction with a utterly sincere, big-budget, lame-brained sensibility aimed at the fattest, laziest, and most middle-minded of America’s fat, lazy, and mindless middle class.
D-Wars is an even more spectacular failure at this trans-Pacific hybridization, proving (as if any proof were needed) that Hyung-rae Shim has learned absolutely nothing from experience…in fact, he’s learned all the wrong lessons. D-Wars is a case study of just what happens when a clutch of filmmakers earnestly believes in the Hollywood doctrine of More Is Better. Unless you’re talking about more character development, more emotional resonance, or a more straight-forward narrative structure. Those are just time wasters—place holders between action scenes. The movie’s obvious contempt for its characters leaves even the most kinetic and spectacular of scenes as emotionally vacuous as a gum-snapping Valley Girl with a high-end shoe shopping fetish. I’m bored…and no amount of exploding helicopters is going to win me back.
The convoluted, bi-lingual script, written by our auteur in Korean and translated to English for the American cast, creates the sensation that all this takes place in some crazy, parallel universe where reporters, armed with nothing but press badges, can wander unsupervised through crime scenes and hospitals with nary a hand raised against them. Our (apparent) Hero, Ethan, is about the ballsiest action hero cum TV news anchor since Charles Victor Szasz, complete with his own magic necklace (a gift from Jack) and Token Black Dude cameraman/sidekick, Bruce (Craig Robinson). But Behr’s immobile face lends nothing to a role that makes ol’ Charlie look six dimensional by comparison. Behr doesn’t seem to realize that, as an actor, one must sell a rebellion against Destiny, or Heaven…or any metaphysical force, for that matter. Especially if it’s as doomed and destructive as Ethan’s. Behr couldn’t sell pot to a hippie, despite being so blandly hip he makes the Cloverfield kids look like real Manhattanites.
Worse, it’s all too easy to blame Ethan for all the destruction dominating the movie’s last two-thirds. Think about it: he and his reincarnated girlfriend (who accepts his crazed story without question) spend a full hour running the Sarah Conner Marathon, perused by a hundred-foot snake…who mysteriously escapes the notice by our military-industrial complex until it pursues Our Starcrossed Lovers up the U.S. Bank Tower. This drawn-out chase culminates in a full scale attack on downtown LA, as Buraki calls in all his lizard-riding armies down upon the city. Apache helicopters and national guard tanks war with dragons in CGI dog fights that make the Death Star Canyon look like summer time in Rock Creek Park. Armored dino-riders give the LAPD’s ass a well-deserved kicking, property crumbles, and countless innocents are no-doubt wiped out (conveniently) off-screen, to say nothing of all the National Guard troops, city cops, and U.S. Bank suits.
I should be happy. This should be a high point of the movie. If I gave a damn, it would be. But I’ve seen Sci-Fi Channel Original Movies with better acting and more heart than this needlessly complicated nonsense. There’s no chemistry between our leads. Instead of Bogart and Bacall, these two seem to model themselves after Calvin Klein mannequins (the ones in the ads, not the stores). Staring vacantly into a camera may work for underwear models, but the screen is a much harsher canvas than a billboard in the mall. Moving pictures demand an actor occasionally move his or her face, to say nothing of his or her audience.
“I’m telling you,” Sarah warns us, “something terrible is coming. Something more terrible than you could possibly imagine.” Like, say, your supposed romance with Ethan, which I wouldn’t believe if it were the last informed-relationship on Earth. What could he see in you anyway? Criminally deprived of a role, Amanda Brooks spends the film with a quizzical, doe’s expression of confused misunderstanding. I sympathize, having felt my face contort with similar expressions throughout the film. This should, by all rights, be her film: screw that creepy journalist and all Destiny ranting. Screw the giant snakes, too. Atop the Bank Tower, before the carnage really beings, Sarah makes her only proactive move when she snags a gun from Ethan and threatens to kill herself. Ethan stops her, since the Good Lord’s supposedly turned his hand against self-slaughter, but Sarah’s suicide would’ve ended things quite nicely right there…at least for the next five hundred years. Might’ve averted at least some of the ensuing destruction, and who knows? If the Army couldn’t wipe Buraki out, the Navy’s right down the coast. Let them deal with the fucking cobra. Seems the perfect excuse to wipe LA off the map with few “strategic” cruise missile strikes…
But no. We have to end on a high note. A kaiju big battle between Buraki and an unnamed (and, until the last few minutes of the film, unseen) Good Imoogi. This takes place in front of some great temple, somewhere. The film’s not very good with keeping its mystical geography straight.
Of course it’s all a well-done, special effects buffet. Monster ‘rasslin’s come a long way from its men-in-suit origins, despite Hyung-rae Shim’s slavish adherence to Michael Bay’s Rules for ADHD Film Making. But so what? We already knew computers can make our imaginations look real enough for film. D-War didn’t need to waste seventy-five million dollars proving it again. I come down hard on this film, not only because it’s awful, but because it sacrifices any chance of developing its story on the alter of More Is More, the most destructive lesson you can ever learn from Hollywood films.
There’s a lot of pretentious-sounding nonsense about fate and destiny here, and a respect for both that’s very Korean (i.e. “down right fatalistic”). But monster movies aren’t fated to be this godawful. No evil serpent holds them back in the land of brainless, exploitative “blockbusters.”They don’t have to be dumb, poorly-made wastes of our time and money. Poor choices, made by misguided filmmakers are all that stand between us and our best destiny.
With any luck, some six-year-old is going to consider this the most wonderful flick since Bambi Meets Godzilla, and through it, discover other, much better examples of the genre. That’s the only way any good can ever come of D-War…unless someone finds a way to make cars run on film stock. Wouldn’t that be swell? “Yeah, fill it up with a quart a’ Bad Boys…got some drag racing to do. Might as well add a pinch of Armageddon in their, too, Fred. Gon’ need octane tonight.”