You know Reptilian, the South Korean 1999 movie also known as Yonggary, despite not really being a remake of the South-Korean Yongary: Monster From The Deep?
We’re not talking about that. It’s pretty well known for its unfinished crappy CG for the monsters, the laughably stupid dialogues and its clear attempt at copying Godzilla… the 1998 Roland Emmerich american remake Godzilla, that is.
It’s a cult sensation, one i feel it’s pretty well known to genre fans, so i would argue there’s not much point going over it again. And i won’t, not today.
What is less discussed is Dragon Wars: D-War, despite also being a Korean monster movie from director Shim Hyung-Rae, and pretty much a continuation of Reptilian, as in a second attempt to make a proper Korean monster movie for home and abroad.
(This is a partial rewrite of the piece written in 2020 on the italian blog Wise Cafè )
And on paper, it sounds better, as this one actually has korean actors (alongside the american ones there for marketing purpose), draws from the korean folklore about dragons, and it’s not so desperate to try emulate the “flavor” of Roland Emmerich’s cinema, which helps a lot. Not that you need to be told that, but whatever.
The plot is about 2 mystical serpents of the korean folklore, the Imugi, one good, one evil, and they both fight for a person able to make them transform into celestial dragons called “Yuh Yi Joo”, and a young boy named Ethan, tasked from the mysterious antique vendor Jack to protect the next reincarnation of the powerful being, a woman named Sarah Daniels living in LA, from the clutches of the corrupted imogi known as Buraki.
15 years later, Buraki attacks Los Angeles in search of Sarah Daniels using his huge army of dragons, knights and monsters, and Ethan runs in a desperate dash to help her escape, but this also triggers memories of their past lives in the two…
On paper, it sounds ok, but in practice you’ll be left wishing for the absolute ridiculousness of Reptilian, because at least you could have fun with it, there was a light-hearted tone that made it easier to go along with his absolute pile of non-sense.
Credit where credit is due, and Dragon Wars does look way better, you can tell the budget for this one is WAY higher than Reptilian could ever dream of, and this translate to presentable CG for the time, instead of kaijus being left too much into the washer, you get plenty of giant reptiles breath fire and break things on screen. Western style dragons, oriental style dragons, big lizards, dinosaurs, Dragon Wars has it all, regardless if it feels out of place, like the fairly unexplicable cow-reptiles armed with mortars and…an evil black mystical knight as the human incarnation of Buraki, followed by his fantasy style armies. There’s a late George Lucas vibe to it, as well.
But sadly, it doesn’t matter much when the plot feels like they stitched together two completely different movies, the one taking place in the Korea of 1506, and the one taking place in modern Los Angeles. They never really mesh, but they have to anyway since the script says so, meaning the final result leaves a lot to be desired, as it doesn’t do much with its premise anyway (maybe because it tries too hard to juggle 2 plots), and the characters are never given the proper time to actually be fleshed out, so you’re left following these two bland characters that you don’t really care about.
The biggest own-goal here is substituting any proper characterization with the plot device of Ethan and Sarah’s previous lives, where their love led to eternal tragedy, etc. This emotional baggage is forced upon them and ends up making them even less interesting, because they’re just on the “autopilot hand of fate”, and the whole tragic finale… doesn’t have impact because of it.
If anything, it makes the whole thing even more depressing (and not in a good way), in a movie that’s already a bit too much on the mopey side, because Ethan’s quest was meant to be unfulfilling, he was just a instrument for destiny, like Sarah. A shame because the american cast isn’t so bad, with Jason Behr as Ethan, and Amanda Brooks as Sarah, but ironically they don’t seem to have much in the way of direction or motivation, which is a bit too untentionally fitting for the boring and clueless characters they play.
Not much to laugh about either, it’s not a good movie, but it also never goes full “so bad it’s good” like Reptilian often did, and the attempts at comedy are pretty poultry, to be generous. Seeing the bad guy in black armor being run over by a car twice in 5 minutes is funny, yes, i will admit that, but overall there’s almost no levity, the movie as a whole has this sloppy serious attitude to it that doesn’t win anyone over.
Again, because it never becomes accidentally funny.
Overall, Dragons Wars is at the very least watchable, there’s plenty of action and stuff happening on screen to tide you over until the final fight of the mystical dragons, but even that is kinda disappointingly short and not very satisfying. You definitely won’t see it through the end for the characters, as insipid as they are, and since you really won’t feel invested in them or the plot, you’ll remember very little of it when the movie ends.
Is Reptilian the better movie? No, quite no. It’s Dragon Wars a good movie? No, it’s still bad but it will leave you more disappointed and bitter because the budget was better, the premise was better, there was actually more effort put into it and some style on display…. but at the end of the day Reptilian was more entertaining and fun. Both stupid for their own reasons, but sorry, i will gladly take “stupid bullshit fun” instead of the mopey, disheartened stupid this movie trades in.
Shame, because there was actually something to this one. For kaiju buffs only.