Look, monster movies are tough...
...In many ways, the tone and success of the film hinges on the special effects department. If the creature looks real, you can shoot for a more serious, grounded atmosphere. If we can see strings and pulleys, or the CGI is about as good as a second grader playing around in iMovie, it may be best to embrace the silliness and play up the camp factor. And that is not a knock! Very few filmmakers get blessed with Marvel-sized budgets, and I for one enjoy seeing how different filmmakers find creative ways of getting around financial constraints.
Dragon Soldiers, written by Dan Sinclair and directed by Hank Braxtan, clearly didn’t have Disney-levels of money to play around with, but that didn’t stop the cast and crew from putting together a fiery fun creature feature that should offer a welcome respite for anyone needing a break from elves, toys, talking snowmen, and reindeer with unusually bright appendages at this time of year. The film follows a team of mercenaries led by Artie Cameron (Ruben Pla) and his second-in-command Julius Green (Antuone Torbert) after they’ve been hired by Mayor Eddie Mordry (Butch McCain) to head into the local forest and root out a band of homeless individuals that Mordry suspects are responsible for the disappearances of several tourists. Green is skeptical, believing there’s more to the mayor’s story that he’s not telling them. And there is! The whole reason the homeless people have mobilized and militarized in the woods in the first place is because the mayor has kicked them out of town, and though they may have gone a bit Jonestown out amongst the trees and the squirrels, they’re not the real threat that’s lurking in the depths of the vast wilderness...and in the skies.
Director Braxtan has taken on giant monsters before, most notably in 2018’s Snake Outta Compton, and this time out he instead tackles a fantastical beast—a fire-breathing dragon--but with a slightly more serious approach than Snake, which is a straight parody of the genre. This is not to say that Dragon Soldiers plays like a serious drama or a nuanced commentary on deforestation and environmental conservatism (although there is a fracking element involved for vague expository plot reasons). Far from it. There are heaps of ill-timed jokes even the daddest of dads wouldn’t touch, and so much over-the-top machismo it makes the guys from Predator look like Hello Kitty and friends. But the film does put in work to establish tension and exploit some horror angles that, while not exactly terrifying, aren’t completely silly beats either. It averages out to a happy medium, in fact, leaving the film in a comfortably enjoyable space akin to one of the better Syfy Asylum films.
The characters are rote and hit a number of familiar archetypes for this sub-genre of films: the gruff, buff hero with a heart of gold, the skeevy politician, the drunk-off-his-ass coward who finds redemption through sacrifice (Tarkan Dospil), the lone female who is spunky and knowledgeable in ways the men aren’t (Arielle Brachfeld), but there’s time dedicated to give each of them a chance to grow beyond their bylines and develop actual personalities. It’s a testament to both Sinclair’s script and the performers’ work that, though the characters are tropes, they don’t sink into stereotypes. Sinclair also throws a few decent twists in what would otherwise be a straightforward dragon-hunting film, least of all setting the film in modern times as opposed to medieval Europe.
The dragon itself comes off well. It’s an interesting design, fairly menacing and sinister in appearance. The CGI varies in consistency and quality throughout, looking quite questionable at certain points, but surprisingly good at others. For the minimal budget, I was impressed with what the filmmakers were able to do, especially in the latter half of the film in which the dragon appears in full more often. It’s no Smaug or Drogon, but there’s more than one moment where the dragon looks real enough to give any shiny-plated knight, or camo-clad militaman, pause.
For such a ludicrous concept—a dragon wreaking havoc in the remote woods surrounding a small town? How would it go unnoticed for so long? How would it sustain itself on such meager hunting options? Why hasn’t it burnt up the crazy cultists already? --Dragon Soldiers delivers exactly what it promises: grizzled warriors taking on a mythical beast with all the weaponry and firepower of the twenty-first century at their disposal. The film is easy, entertaining—it looks like it must have been a blast to film—and well-crafted by a team who clearly loves what they do. The performances may not be award-worthy, but they serve the twisty, if somewhat limited, story perfectly. If nothing else, pop this one on if you’re looking for an amusing way to kill ninety minutes. They can slay a dragon; you can slay your boredom.
Dragon Soldiers is now available on DVD, VOD and Digital from Lionsgate.
By Craig Ranallo