Most residents of Los Angeles likely harbor fears of their city being destroyed by an earthquake. Turns out they should be worrying about a 600 foot-long serpent named Buraki instead. Dragon Wars is an old-school B-movie about this wicked snake's determination to find and eat a woman whose special gift will make him an omnipotent celestial dragon—even as a young reporter and an ancient mage seek to deliver her to a good serpent, who, as it turns out, will still have to devour her.
That's the short version.
The longer version begins in Korea 500 years ago with an old wizard-warrior training a protégé to protect a woman with a gift called the Yuh Yi Joo, which is delineated by a dragon tattoo she was born with. The gift matures inside her until her 20th birthday, whereupon it can turn one of two rival serpents known as Imoogi into all-powerful dragon rulers of the universe. But the young man falls in love with the girl instead of delivering her to the good serpent, as he's sworn to do, and the two jump off a cliff to their death instead of fulfilling their scripted destiny.
Fast-forward half a millennium, and the cycle has begun anew—this time in L.A. The young warrior has been reincarnated as Ethan Kendrick, a television reporter for CGNN news, and the young woman has returned as a beautiful loner named Sarah Daniels. The old mage, who apparently never died, now goes by the name of Jack and helps the pair come to grips with the fact that their choices will determine humanity's fate.
But there's hardly time for them to piece this backstory together before Buraki and his army of virtually unstoppable Atrox soldiers (led by the so-called Evil General) and various dinosaur-like hordes descend on the West Coast in search of their prey. Ethan and Sarah flee buildings and cars that keep getting crunched by Buraki and Co. as the two face the same dilemma their pre-existent selves did: whether to submit to destiny and sacrifice Sarah to the good Imoogi or look for a loophole in fate and hope for the best.
Ethan repeatedly puts his life on the line to save Sarah as they play keep away from Buraki. Sarah's roommate, Brandy, tries to encourage her when she's struggling emotionally. Likewise, Ethan's cameraman, Bruce, is a good friend who attempts to protect the couple and keep them out of harm's way.
Jack is also interested in keeping the couple alive, though he's definitely working from his own agenda (which is, in the end, ensuring the survival of the human race). [Spoiler Warning] It's implied that Sarah's ultimate choice to sacrifice herself saves humanity from what Jack calls "a dreadful fate."
The film opens with a voice-over about a Korean legend of two serpents warring for control of the universe. The winner, we're told, will "ascend to heaven" upon consuming the Yuh Yi Joo. One serpent is, of course, good and the other evil. We're told that the evil serpent once coveted the power of the good one.
More significantly, reincarnation is a central tenet. Contrary to Christianity's teaching that every human being lives just once and then faces judgment before God (Hebrews 9:27), Dragon Wars indicates that at least some people are reincarnated. It pushes things a step further by showing Sarah being hypnotized by a memory specialist, whereupon she recalls memories from her current and past lives. (Jack operates an antique store in which we see a large Buddha statue.)
Both Jack and the Evil General wield magical abilities, including shooting flames, shape-shifting, levitation, walking on water, etc. The Evil General's army is magically summoned from the writings of an ancient, presumably Korean scroll.
[Spoiler Warning] Sarah willingly gives the Yuh Yi Joo to the good Imoogi, and it emerges from her body like a kind of energy field that then crystallizes into a multicolored globe that the Imoogi eats as Sarah's body goes limp and unconscious. An angel-like version of Sarah later emerges from the newly created celestial dragon and reassures Ethan, "Don't be sad. I'll love you for all eternity. We'll be together again."
Sarah wears a cleavage-baring tank top in a couple of scenes, and its obvious in one she's not wearing a bra. Other revealing clothes include a very short dress and an off-the-shoulder sweater. Bruce talks with someone on the phone about something being "lacy" and "see-through." Soldiers roughly yank a number of Korean women's shirts while looking for the dragon tattoo, exposing shoulders and upper chest.
Brandy's boyfriend picks up Sarah's underwear and makes a lewd comment. He also hugs Brandy suggestively, implying he's more interested in sexual activity than taking care of Sarah. Sarah and Ethan kiss.
Monster-invasion violence is intense and nonstop yet mostly blood- and gore-free. Buraki—who is essentially a snake the length of a couple of football fields—damages everything he slithers over. He seems to love using his giant fanged mouth to chomp cars, helicopters and even one unfortunate woman whom he seizes, then spits out dead. An elephant is another one of his victims (and one of the only casualties that oozes blood).
Buraki's minions include soldiers armed with swords, lumbering dinosaur-like beasts packing missile launchers, and formidable flying reptiles that breath fire. Together, this army marches through the streets and flies through the skies of L.A., mowing down multitudes of cars and buildings, civilians and soldiers (though soldiers and policemen expend thousands of bullets trying to slow the creatures' advance).
Explosions abound—many involving Army tanks and helicopters, others involving flying reptiles crashing into skyscrapers. A number of people are set on fire; many others get killed by swords (especially in a flashback scene to an ancient battle in Korea); still others fall from buildings. They're hurled into car windshields and buildings; several scenes picture dead bodies.
A writhing fang-filled battle between Buraki and the good Imoogi marks the finale. It takes place near an altar in Buraki's dark realm, where Sarah is tied down to await her fate. A massive explosion knocks over and presumably kills all of Buraki's soldiers and creatures in an ever-expanding shockwave. We see two of them virtually disintegrate in flames.
On the more realistic side of things, Sarah is briefly harassed by three men outside a bar. And an FBI agent attempts to shoot her but hits Ethan instead. Another FBI agent then shoots and kills the one who tried to kill Sarah. And the Evil General gets hit hard by not one, but two cars.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Brandy tries to cheer up a despondent Sarah by taking her to a bar. We see them consuming beer; Brandy says she's disappointed when "a few beers" don't improve her roommate's outlook on things.
I expected two things from Dragon Wars: creature-feature violence and Eastern spirituality. And that's exactly what this film by Hyung Rae Shim, who's been called the "Korean George Lucas," delivered. Plenty of bullets, fangs and explosions, all connected to a story that romanticizes reincarnation.
From a spiritual standpoint, that life-death-life-death emphasis is easily the biggest problem, as it may inspire some to begin to toy with the idea that it might be possible to plumb the memories of past lives.
From a content perspective, violence is pretty much constant once the action gets underway. By today's standards of blood and gore, though, it's fairly restrained—far closer to the Godzilla end of the spectrum than it is to even the latter Jurassic Park flicks.
Speaking of those two dino-powered franchises, Dragon Wars is also hamstrung by its dependence on special effects shots that feel incredibly familiar and derivative. It's impossible not to think of King Kong as Buraki winds his way up the U.S. Bank Tower and starts lunging at attacking helicopters. Sweeping camera shots of the Evil General and his advancing hordes look like unused battle footage from The Lord of the Rings. Or was it The Mummy? Or Independence Day? Or Crouching Tiger? Or Top Gun?