ASIAN FILM - Article
15:12 - 4th July 2016, by NEO Staff

Enter The Dragon Blade

Jackie Chan talks to NEO’s David West about dealing with the desert heat, sandstorms and a cast of thousands in Daniel Lee’s historical action adventure Dragon Blade.

East meets west. A clash of cultures and civilisations. Not a story plucked from the headlines, but the premise for Dragon Blade, the epic adventure from director Daniel Lee starring global superstar Jackie Chan in which two ancient empires – Rome and China – collide on the Silk Road.

Huo An (Chan) is a Commander of the Silk Road Protection Squad, charged with keeping the peace on the vital trading route connecting China to the west. It’s not an easy task, with pugnacious tribes fighting for resources and dominance. Dispatched to the crumbling Wild Geese Gate outpost, with orders to speed up the fort’s reconstruction or face execution, Huo An encounters Lucius (John Cusack), a Roman General on the run in the hopes of protecting young Publius (Jozef Waite) from his ruthless, power-mad older brother Tiberius (Adrien Brody) who has seized control of Rome’s unstoppable legions and is hot on their heels.

While Dragon Blade is a fictional story, it was inspired by history. The Silk Road, which was actually several different routes rather than just one, fostered trade between China and Rome, where silk was in high demand.

“When Daniel Lee first told me about his concept, about eight years ago, he had already been collecting information about the Protection Squad for several years already,” says Jackie Chan. “And not just in China, but from all over Europe. He is very concerned about the smallest of details. We can see with our own eyes that there are Chinese people on the Silk Road that look Caucasian. But we can only speculate that they are the descendants of the lost legion of Roman soldiers that is portrayed in the film.”

When In Rome…

Not just the star of Dragon Blade, Chan handled the action choreography with his Jackie Chan Stunt Team. His character, Huo An, tries to avoid bloodshed whenever possible and fights with a customised shield on his forearm. Asked whether it’s fun to set himself challenges in the action choreography, like having a hero dedicated to peace, Chan replies, “Yes, it’s one of the most fun parts of taking on new films. But also one of the most difficult, because audiences demand something fresh every time. I came up with the idea of having an arm shield, because a peacekeeping group should have defensive weapons. They should be dissuading others from fighting. A heavy shield would weigh them down but a small shield can be nimble. So I thought that everyone should carry a small shield as a kind of signature. This small shield turned out to be very useful; it actually saved my life in a scene at the end of the movie. It contributed to the uniqueness of the film and the freshness of the action design.”

In preparation for the shoot, director Lee researched Roman weapons and armour, which were a departure from standard wuxia swordplay. “And we discussed the subject in depth,” says Chan. “For the Romans, fighting is all about force; all about their brute power. We tried our best to tone down the fancy fighting styles that you normally see in Chinese action. We have to respect the fighting traditions of Ancient Rome. We also made subtle changes to their armour, including the size of their helmets: sometimes bigger, sometimes smaller. It was for practical reasons. It is really draining to fight while wearing a heavy helmet in the desert heat.”

Sandals, Swords and Sandstorms

Dragon Blade broke the record for the biggest budget of any Chinese movie at four billion Yuan (roughly £45 million). The budget is all up on the screen, with vast armies in full costume and huge battle scenes.

“It was truly challenging,” says Chan. “There were 1,000 to 1,500 soldiers on set. These were actors, not CGI animations! In fact, there weren’t enough for the epic scenes we wanted to shoot, so we’d shoot them from one angle, have them move to the opposite side and shoot them again from the same angle. We did this several times for one scene! It’s technically quite difficult, because you have to match the shots with the static camera. Maybe it would have been easier to just use VFX in post-production, but we wanted a more natural look like in those classic movies from Hollywood. And don’t forget the four hundred horses! And costumes. We had the costumes of 36 nations and the Roman soldiers. There are the blue and the white teams among the Romans plus the armour for the horses… You’ll definitely be amazed if you take a tour around the props studio.”

The production shot in Hengdian Film Studios, China’s largest movie facility, before travelling to the far west for location shooting in the deserts of Dunhuang and Aksai on the Sino-Indian border. “Intense heat and heavy armour is a terrible combination!” says Chan. “So that our own armour didn’t cut us, we wore it over cotton-padded jackets. In winter, that was really comfortable. But then we moved to the desert, we just got hotter and hotter with every day. We had to cheat, wearing armour made of plastic. We finally got smart! But then we had sandstorms to cope with. It was really painful to fight with sand blowing in your eyes. And you can’t close your eyes, because you’re on camera. I want to emphasise that the action in the movie is real. We shot the action scenes in the real desert. Wherever you shoot, even in a Hollywood studio set, action films are always difficult, but on the real historical locations in the midst of sandstorms!? But looking at the finished film, the hardship was worthwhile.”

Reap the rewards of Chan’s hard work when Dragon Blade comes to DVD and Blu-ray on 14 March from Signature Entertainment.

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