You know how sometimes you wonder how a film ever came to be made? How it ever survived the tenuous and tortuous gestation period through which commercially produced motion pictures go?
How, given it must have cost millions of dollars, occupied fully the professional lives of several dozen people for maybe six months or a year (not just the actors and director but countless cameramen, make-up artists, costume designers, scriptwriters, set builders, compositors, special effects guys, key grips, best boys and so on) that someone had enough energy and a sufficiently plausible straight face to persuade all those people, and their financiers, of its fundamental worthwhileness to even be made?
Age of Dragons – surely to Herman Melville what Rick Wakeman’s Camelot On Ice was to Thomas Mallory – is one of those films. It’s difficult to see how that bubble-bursting, Emperor’s-nudity-identifying moment didn’t come mid-way through the pitch, or even earlier, during the (presumably drunken) bar-room conversation in which young, dim scriptwriter seizes on the big idea: “Eureka! I’ve got it! Moby Dick … Only on LAND! … With DRAGONS!”
Somehow, it happened. Unlike Travolta’s Battlefield Earth or Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender, Age of the Dragons has no big name Hollywood “auteur” behind it bamboozling the usual BS detectors with which Hollywood majors are festooned. That this film ever saw the light of day is, simply put, a cock-up, for which someone – probably quite a few people – will be fired.
Moby Dick for landlubbers. Lord, give me strength.
Now taking place on dry land presents some obvious dramatic challenges to Melville’s original story. It takes away the need for everyone to be holed up, festering, on a boat in the middle of a seething ocean. There is no threshold-crossing moment when our hero vaults the gunwale, away from safe dry land and commends his mortal soul to the unknowable madness of a possessed man. Since these absences futz with the dramatic set up of Moby Dick, director Ryan Little contrives to have them all set off on a boat anyway. An ironclad boat. On wheels. Every now an then, they all hop out of it and wander about.
In this and many other ways Ryan Little’s film takes large liberties with Melville’s plot, whilst keeping sacred faith with smaller details, the way you’d do if you had only a passing familiarity with the story. A voice-over describes second mate Stubbs (a comparatively excellent Vinnie Jones) in terms strikingly reminiscent of the Wikipedia entry for Moby Dick.
Ryan Little might still have got away with all of this had he an intelligent screenplay, a capable cast or at least a sense of humour at his disposal. That the scant display of any of the three comes in the single person of Vinnie Jones, who really is the best thing in the film by a country mile (until his character snuffs it at the end of the first act), ought to tell you all you need to know.
Danner Glover – yes, the very same – appears eventually as Ahab, chews far more scenery than any of the dragons, and elsewhere hovers between being clad in protective clothing of a (vaguely) George Clintonesque aspect and sharing screen time with a younger version of himself, in an oft-repeated flashback to a childhood incident featuring the dragon, his sister, a bucket, a river and a field of barley (symbolism highly resemblent of Gladiator, but pointed at nothing in particular). Anthropomorphising the Captain’s torment beyond the obsessive lust for revenge – not something Herman Melville felt any need to do – also seems an odd decision.
Other than that, there’s little to say. It’s frightfully derivative. The snow special effects are dreadful. Outside of Jones’ twinkling eye and Glover’s histrionics, the workaday cast spar gamely with a dreadful script, but cannot land a blow. Corey Sevier’s Ishmael is anodyne and forgettable in all respects bar his resemblance to an effete Colin Farrell. Kepa Kruse – now there’s a stage name – plays Queeqeg as a literate savage whose role in life is continually to bail out poor wet little Ishmael but otherwise makes no sense that cannot be extracted from foreknowledge of Melville’s book. Sofia Pernas, as luscious Rachel, plays Ishmael’s romantic opposite (surprise! Melville didn’t think of that either!) by lurching uneasily between Xena Warrior Princess and a traditionally distressed Hollywood damsel.
Meanwhile, despite mountainous quantities of earnestness, Ryan Little fails to inject an iota of drama, pacing or much in the way of character arc into proceedings and then fully squanders the opportunity for redemption by means of a dramatic final showdown, which simply never materialises.
It’s all over in an hour and a half, and (this could become a catchphrase, I know) at least it isn’t in 3D.
Age of the Dragons is in cinemas this Friday, 4th March 2011.
Director: Ryan Little
Stars: Danny Glover, Vinnie Jones, Corey Sevier
Runtime: 94 mins