Film Reviews

Buddy and the Beast

If there were such a thing as an Academy Award for Best Computer-Generated Actor, it would be hard to imagine a more worthy Oscar hopeful than Draco, the flying and fire-belching behemoth who figures prominently in Dragonheart. To be sure, it helps a lot that this scaly superstar is blessed with the gruffly mellifluous voice of Sean Connery. But it helps even more that Draco was created and animated by the master magicians employed by Industrial Light & Magic. Thanks to them, Draco is not merely a special effect. Rather, he is a thoroughly believable, amazingly expressive and utterly charismatic co-star. Even the marauding velociraptors in Jurassic Park never appeared so realistic.

It says a lot about Dennis Quaid's own screen presence that the ever-boyish leading man more than holds his own while acting opposite Draco. In fact, during the many scenes in Dragonheart where the pair appear to share the same seamless frame, they develop a playfully edgy give-and-take that brings out the best in each of them.

Quaid is cast as Bowen, a tenth-century knight errant who fears nothing that walks, flies or breathes smoke, and he seems to be trying a little too hard in the early scenes. (For some odd reason, Quaid affects a rasping, gravelly voice that recalls Nick Nolte in 48 HRS. Is this his idea of how world-weary knights spoke during the Dark Ages?) But once Draco bolts out of the shadows and makes his first full-bodied appearance, Quaid loosens up and goes with the flow. To his credit, he refrains from ever placing his tongue in his cheek, thereby ensuring that the audience will take Draco as seriously as he does. But whenever a touch of comic relief is appropriate, Quaid proves to be a most amusing straight man, particularly when Draco accidentally chars their evening meal with an over-enthusiastic blast of flame.

As for Draco, he gets all of the best lines. ("Why must you knights out to make a name for yourselves always pick on us dragons?") But he needs Quaid's sincerity and matter-of-fact acceptance to reinforce the illusion. Unlike, say, the tornadoes in Twister, or even the T-Rex in Jurassic Park, Draco eventually has to be taken for granted. That is, if Dragonheart is going to work as something other than a roller coaster ride, there must be a point fairly early in the movie when people in the audience think, "Okay, there's a dragon up there. A big sucker, with horns and claws and wings. We accept that. Now what?" That's where Quaid really comes in handy: his belief makes it easy for us to believe. By the time he casually leans against Draco while they discuss their next move, we have stopped wondering how the ILM team pulled off such an amazing trick. Instead, we're concentrating on what Draco is doing and saying -- much as we would concentrate on what any human character might do or say.

And that is a large part of why Dragonheart is a hugely entertaining mix of ancient myth, classic swashbuckler and state-of-the-art special effects. The director is Rob Cohen, who dealt with an entirely different sort of Dragon when he filmed the Bruce Lee biography. And the writer is Charles Edward Pogue, a wordsmith whose resume includes D.O.A., the filmed-in-Austin remake of the classic film-noir thriller. (Dennis Quaid appeared in that movie, too.) Working in collaboration with a first-rate cast and some extraordinarily ingenious special-effects people, these filmmakers have concocted the season's first blockbuster that has almost as much heart and soul as sound and fury. The pace is brisk, the action is exciting, and the emotions are refreshingly free of self-mocking excess.

As Dragonheart begins, Bowen is training a gangling young prince in the ways of armed combat. But then the boy's father, a tyrannical king, gets his just desserts during a peasant revolt, and the prince himself is seriously wounded. So the desperate Queen Aislinn (a still-radiant Julie Christie) rushes her dying son to a dark cave where, deep in the shadowy depths, a supernatural creature resides. The queen begs the creature to heal her son's wounds. The creature -- a dragon, of course -- agrees to help, but only if the prince promises to be a just and wise ruler. Not surprisingly, the boy accepts the dragon's terms. Even less surprisingly, the spoiled Prince Einon (Lee Oakes) begins to break his promise even before he grows up to be the wicked King Einon (David Thewlis of Naked).

What happened? Was Einon just born bad? Or is he the product of a permissive upbringing? Bowen decides his former pupil turned into a cruel monarch because of the dragon. More specifically, Bowen decides that because the dragon gave Einon a little piece of his heart-- literally -- the bright young lad was infected by the creature's innate wickedness. That's enough to turn Bowen into a world-class dragon slayer, an occupation he pursues with unwavering zeal for more than a decade. But then he meets Draco, the last of the dragons, and has -- well, a change of heart.

The battle scenes in Dragonheart are less spectacular, and much more subdued, than similar scenes in Braveheart, but they are rousing just the same. And when Bowen teams with Draco to prey upon villagers with a shakedown scam -- he pretends to slay the pesky dragon in return for a hefty fee -- their con artistry is very funny. Eventually, however, Bowen regains his faith in the chivalric code of knighthood, to the point where he actually joins Draco and a hearty peasant band in an uprising against bad old King Einon. In this, he is aided by Kara, a spunky peasant lass played by Dina Meyer, an actress who evidently had nothing but bad-hair days during the entire production. Also along for the ride: Pete Postlethwaite (In the Name of the Father, The Usual Suspects) as Gilbert, a grandiloquent monk who proves more handy with a crossbow than a quill pen.

Dragonheart was filmed on location in Slovakia, which has the just the right look for this kind of fable, and it's filled with dozens of extras who look and sound exactly how you would expect nobles, knights and peasants of the Dark Ages to look and sound. Meyer isn't entirely convincing as Kara, though she does wield a mean battle-ax when push comes to shove. And Thewlis doesn't quite have it in him to go exuberantly over the top as Einon. (Where is Alan Rickman when you really need him?) But never mind: Quaid is suitably dashing as a fallen-from-grace hero with a veneer of sourball cynicism. And Draco is nothing short of astonishing. Maybe he should start working on his acceptance speech now, just in case the Motion Picture Academy decides to change the rules.

Directed by Rob Cohen. With Dennis Quaid and the voice of Sean Connery.
Rated PG-13.
108 minutes.

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Joe Leydon