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Old Flame

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Original monsta: Draco the dragon flames it old-school style.

'Dragonheart' a rousing throwback

By Zack Stentz

OK, SEE, there's this brave knight who's the tutor to a spoiled young prince, and he watches the prince get mortally wounded in battle. But a kindly local dragon gives the prince half of his own heart to save him, but the prince still grows up to be a nasty tyrant, so the knight and the dragon have to team up and help the oppressed peasants to overthrow the . . . , well, you get the point. If you were raised, like me, on a strict diet of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, this plot sketch of Dragonheart probably sounds to you like a nifty idea for a movie. If not, it most likely strikes you as dorky fare more suited to the Dungeons and Dragons-playing geeks from junior high school.

Actually, Dragonheart is both. Simultaneously hokey and rousing, the film comes as a fiery breath of fresh air in a summer of convoluted, self-referencing, postmodern action silliness (Mission: Impossible) and celluloid theme-park rides that have eschewed plot and characterization altogether (Twister). With non-gory violence and no sex or bad language, Dragonheart is even kid-friendly. Think of it as a 1940s Ray Harryhausen adventure movie with really good special effects.

Of course, the most special effect of all is the titular character, Draco, an 18-foot-tall, 45-foot-long dragon with armor plating, teeth like daggers, and the unmistakable voice of Sean Connery. Alternately fierce, sardonic, mournful, and compassionate, Draco is a fully fleshed-out character, even if the flesh in question was created in a Silicon Graphics workstation.

And aided by Sean Connery's razor-sharp delivery, he even gets off most of the movie's best lines. In a Clintonesque moment, Draco denies having a propensity for eating human flesh, declaring: "I only chewed in self-defense. And I never swallowed."

Dennis Quaid also turns in a solid performance as Bowen the knight, especially when considering the actor spent half his screen time interacting with a blank spot in space where the Industrial Light and Magic wizards would later color in their computer-generated marvel.

David Thewlis, better known to art-house fans as the compelling creep in Mike Leigh's Naked, makes a convincingly oily villain. Even better is Pete Postlethwaite as Bowen's wandering monk/poet sidekick. So ominous as the mouthpiece for diabolical crime boss Keyser Söze in The Usual Suspects, here Postlethwaite provides comic relief as he runs alongside Quaid, composing heroic couplets to match Bowen's valorous deeds, an idea no less funny for having been stolen from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Directed by Rob Cohen (who previously helmed Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story-- do I detect a theme here?), the film manages the neat trick of conveying sincerity while avoiding the goopy, Spielbergian sentimentality that plagued Willow, an otherwise similar fantasy film from a few years back. Cohen actually believes all that stuff the characters preach like honor, sacrifice, and defending the strong against the weak, and I'd certainly rather swallow Dragonheart's old-school earnestness than another cynical, hipper-than-thou Tarantino splatterfest.

And with its hints of dark forests, ancient ruins, and Celtic magic, in its best moments Dragonheart achieves a genuinely mythic feel that would bring a tear to Joseph Campbell's eye.

So if you can get past the more-than-occasional lapse into silliness and costume drama cliché, then Dragonheart's for you. And if not, well, I hear Striptease is opening in another couple weeks.

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