Dragon Fighter (2003)
Company: UFO International
Runtime: 90 mins
Plot: A secret government facility in Alaska clones a dragon, which then gets loose and wreaks havoc within the secret facility. Newly appointed security chief, David Carver, and the other personnel must fight to try to outsmart this ancient beast and stop it before it can escape out into the world.
Review: Before anything else, let’s break Dragon Fighter down to its core elements - Dean Cain (yes, Superman from ‘Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman’!) fights a cloned dragon. Superman? Cloning? Dragons? Sold! Done! Movie must be awesome! And fortunately, it mostly is.
Before I oversell it, let’s get the flaws and issues out of the way. During the opening title sequence we get a prologue set in medieval England, in which some knights fight a dragon. This is the worst part of the film, and I promise it gets way better afterwards. None of the main scientists, researchers, security personnel, or Superman himself are related to any of the knights/dead villagers and kind of makes this portion a bit pointless. While there are some nice shots of the surprisingly decent-looking dragon, this robs later scenes of the movie of some weight, as a build-up to the full reveal later after it's cloned would have been more impactful. We honestly don’t need to see the dragon in action right off the bat, as we're able to believe that the scientists were able to find some dragon DNA without seeing any of this. Also, the movie’s worst special effects are here during this portion. During a cave in sequence, the falling CGI rocks look so bad it hurts a tad bit. A decade ago when the movie first came out it might not have been so noticeably bad, but for contemporary viewers, it’s an eyesore.
While there’s some great banter throughout, the expository dialogue is very matter-of-fact, feeling like a forced explanation as opposed to real world speech. This makes some of the dialogue exchanges bland and quite frankly, pretty boring,, no matter how good the cast is. Finally, there’s one scene where the editing is too frenzied and spliced up, making things disorienting for no real reason. Trying to escape the not-yet fully grown dragon, our cast is hiding in an elevator and the dragon manages to damage the electric circuit the elevator was connected to, causing the lights in there to flash on and off like a poorly done horror trailer. Nine out of ten times, this way of editing only serves to undercut the very thing the filmmakers wanted to achieve by using it- tension. By being able to cut to any random section of the blacked out area when the lights go down, it creates a ‘boo scare’, which is always the lazy route to go and is rarely effective. Luckily, it’s just the elevator sequence that does this, and it doesn’t last too long.
Now onto the good stuff: Dean Cain plays helicopter pilot/newly hired security chief Captain David Carver, and he brings quite a bit of easy-going charm to the role. He’s easily relatable and likeable from the get-go. When things get crazy, which is fairly early on, he just gets angry at the dragon and the gruffness is also quite believable. The script is a big help here as Capt. Carver is always the smartest person in the room; His intellect is showcased early on in a great bit of Holmesian deductive reasoning, by examining “what’s not on his manifest”. Within one minute of the audience meeting him, he knows about the cloning and that it’s a new specimen being brought to the facility. The scientists are led to believe it’s a dinosaur of some sort, but Carver swiftly figures out it’s a dragon. Having a genuinely intelligent lead makes for a fun hero to root for.
Kristine Byers plays Dr. Meredith Winter, a ‘cloner’, as Carver calls her. Byers is somewhat believable, and plays it straight, even though she has the most ridiculous, goofy dialogue of the entire movie. She is the requisite love interest, but it actually kind of works here. She and Cain have a good rapport and chemistry. As a hobby, she’s an amateur pilot (because, well, of course she is!). Robert Zachar plays the mad scientist that cons everyone else into cloning the dragon, Dr. Ian Drackovitch (yes, ‘Dracko’-vitch - Dragon is in his name! Hilariously awesome!) Zachar is good and clearly having fun, which is nice, but the character never comes off as all that menacing. Considering the amount of screen time and his importance to the plot, Drackovitch’s characterization amounts to nothing more than ‘evil scientist’. A twist involving him and the dragons falls 100% flat, due to no build-up or exploration afterwards. Still, Zachar is fun here, and that definitely livens up the movie at times.
The rest of the cast is solid, with no stand-outs other then Dean Cain, but no one is particularly bad either. Aside from Carver and Winter, all the characters are broad stereotypes, but this works fairly well in this movie, because this is a movie where people fight a cloned dragon, I don’t want or need a lengthy backstory for each person. To help with that though, when we are introduced to each character, a military dossier file pops up and gives us all the pertinent information that we would need to know on them. While cheesy, it adds to the fun of the film and does make each character a bit more distinctive.
Director/co-writer Phillip J. Roth employs a lot of style and starts the action early, keeping it coming at a brisk pace. The most effective tool he uses is a split screen method. Implemented throughout, he shows us the master wide shot, then splits it into smaller compartments to show close-ups of the people’s reactions, as well as the action that is still going on. I have seen so many movies, big budget or otherwise, completely misuse split screen, turning it into a laughable gimmick (*cough* X-Men: First Class *cough*), but that does not happen here. It effectively shows us everything we need to see and know about the action taking place, without cutting away. Therefore the audience is fully immersed into the intense situations and action. Thankfully, it never becomes old hat or boring.
Along those same lines, it’s time to talk about the things on everyone’s mind about this movie - How does the dragon look? Is there a lot of the dragon? Is the action fun? The dragon, in terms of design, looks like a typical classic European dragon. Nothing special or inventive about the design here, but on the other hand the actual CGI itself of the dragon is pretty good. Mind you, this movie is a decade old now, but for the most part the dragon effects surprisingly still hold up pretty well. This is especially an excellent thing, as we get lots of long looks at the dragon during different age cycles, seeing it rapidly grow and mature.
The action scenes as well are well-executed, though a bit typical of made-for-TV movies that were made around the same time and in the same vein (the awesome split screen usage excluded). My personal favorite of the action set pieces in the facility is a cat-and-mouse hunting game, that comes right after the dragon escapes its holding cell. The dragon goes into a long corridor, where Capt. Carver and the animal wrangler follow him. Going from one end to the other, they don’t see it, but on their way back the dragon drops from the ceiling and kills the animal wrangler. It’s a nice introduction to the dragon’s tactics, and the best thing about the action is the movie’s willingness to kill characters off - Seriously, the dragon racks up quite a body count, which does give the whole shebang more of an edge that it might not have otherwise. The best action scene though is clearly the big finale: The now fully-grown dragon is chasing our survivors through the sky n a helicopter and the aerial battle eventually involves fighter jets, and the whole sequence is just an absolute blast to watch.
If you can get through the terrible prologue and can overlook some one-note characters and occasional bland dialogue, then you’ll find a fun, stylish, action/fasntasy/sci-fi film in which Superman fights a dragon! This is a fun B-Movie, with a solid cast, and would be ripe for some solid MST3K-style commentary.
7/10 rooms in the Psych Ward