American Dragons Review

It’s almost ten minutes, or two and a half scenes, before a single line of intelligible dialogue is uttered. Flitting from South Korea to New York, dead bodies are found, a series of murders are committed and a meeting is about to get underway in a near-empty subway station. Such a minimal set-up suggests one of two options: either this film is going to be a deconstruction of the cop-thriller genre in the style of late-period Melville (the bleached out cinematography and sparsely populated locations helping to keep our fingers crossed), or a film so reliant (dependent?) on cliches that words aren’t really necessary.

Without too much disappointment - because, to be honest, there wasn’t much hope - American Dragons settles for the latter. Dialogue of the most perfunctory order does come into play and introduces Tony Luca (Michael Biehn), an undercover cop reassigned to the homicide division after having his cover blown, an event that results in a civilian casualty as well as some soft rock-scored Catholic guilt (cue slow-motion visits to a church and a punch bag). As luck would have it, his first assignment not only ties to his previous case but also fuels the film plot. A back alley murder in Little Tokyo points towards a bigger picture, one involving a deadly moustachioed assassin (“the deadliest that ever lived”), much double crossing and a turf war between the mob and the yakuza. Yet rather than go down a Takeshi Kitano meets The Sopranos route, director Ralph Hemecker takes the safer option of producing yet another mismatched-partners buddy-cop movie with the arrival of Joong-Hoon Park as Biehn’s Korean counterpart.

As with many, if not all films of this ilk, the pair must first settle their own differences before they can solve the case. In this instance the mutual loathing is largely xenophobic - Biehn, for example, owns a car which he admits is a piece of shit, but “at least it’s fuckin’ American” - but soon thaws into friendly banter upon each realising that their partner’s involvement with the case is personal. Park wants revenge for the deaths of his wife and child; Biehn’s father used to be a Mafioso hitman. Not that this provides American Dragons with any great depth, however. Hemecker seems little concerned with the actors, let alone the characters, with Park in particular coming across as wooden (though it’s difficult to ascertain how much his command of the English language accounts for this).

Hemecker’s interests instead lie with American Dragons’ numerous action sequences. Yet without the investment in his leads, or anyone else for that matter, these set pieces appear to simply lurch from one fistfight to the next. Moreover, the individual reasons for these scenes seem to relate more to the need for some action in the trailer rather than any concrete dramatic concerns. They do, however, provoke a modicum of interest insofar as they hark back to an earlier time. It’s shocking to learn that American Dragons was produced in 1998 as the on-screen shenanigans owe nothing to John Woo or Quentin Tarantino (whose influence was immense in action cinema at the time) but rather to a late eighties Chuck Norris entry, albeit one with a bare minimum of martial arts. Given that half of the cast are Asian and that this DVD is most likely gaining a release to cash in on the current interest in Asian genre cinema, this seems positively bizarre. To hammer home the point, the film concludes on a note that suggests a possible sequel (“Next time I’m coming to Korea” cries Biehn at the airport), one which could never be produced today as American Dragons, despite being barely six years old, already seems a relic.

The Disc

As American Dragons is the kind of direct-to-DVD trash most commonly distributed at budget prices by minor companies, we should perhaps be grateful that it is presented here in widescreen with anamorphic enhancement. The original 1.85:1 ratio has been cropped slightly to 1.78:1, but this makes little difference. On the whole, the picture quality is fine, with the occasional signs of grain most likely the result of the bleaching process that film stock has undergone rather than any flaws in the disc’s production. Sound quality is equally proficient, the Dolby Surround mix ably coping with the dialogue, explosions and agreeably cheesy synth soundtrack. Note however, that there is no translation for the Korean dialogue, even when the English subtitles are selected. For some reason, this is not the case with the French and Spanish options, both of which translate everything.

As with many of MGM’s back catalogue releases, American Dragons comes with no extras.

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