Bridge of Dragons (1999)

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Nu Image make the sort of films I love, pretty much. Starting with low budget sci fi and action (Cyborg Cop, Project Shadowchaser) in the early 90s then, in recent years, lucrative deals with action superstars like Sylvester Stallone and Gerard Butler (the Expendables series, Olympus Has Fallen), they’ve got a good thing going and clearly learned well from their old bosses at Cannon. They’re one of the main companies operating out of Sofia, Bulgaria, where aging stars like Jean Claude Van Damme and this film’s own Dolph Lundgren make action movies just like they used to at their height.

Then there’s director Isaac Florentine, one of the kings of this new straight-to-video world. He’s made a few films with Scott Adkins, like the amazing “Ninja”, and, weirdly, quite a lot of “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” episodes. This is from relatively early in his directing career, and is also the first film that Nu Image made in Sofia before buying a studio there a few years later. So what’s it all about?

After a good old traditional “soldiers storm the rebel base” scene to kick us off, we’re introduced into the film’s world, and it does something simple and clever that more low-budget films ought to do – sets the action in a fictional country, so you don’t have to worry about landmarks and trying to make a normal town square look like *famous city*. It’s a place with princesses and evil generals, where high-tech military equipment rubs shoulders with horse-driven carts; and Dolph is “Warbird”, one of General Ruechang’s top mercenaries. Ruechang has seized de facto power after the death of the old king, and is about to marry Princess Halo to make the power “legal”. Only problem is, she doesn’t want to, so escapes, and Dolph’s a good guy so after a bit of tracking her down, goes over to her side, and that of the rebels.

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Because of the location, there’s lots of really great scenery and set-pieces. They film in what I assume is the grounds of the old Communist government’s headquarters, and there’s palaces and so on that would be way out of their price range if they filmed in Britain or the US. It’s an interesting visual style and even when the action’s not very active, there’s usually something to look at. It is a bit weird how all the evil empire’s vehicles have a large “666” written on them though.

The problem is, surprisingly, the action. Florentine makes some weirdly goofy choices when it comes to how to film – Lundgren looks awful running in slow-motion, for one; and some people are very obviously yanked out of shot in a weird, awkward way when an explosion happens. I’m guessing budgetary constraints stopped the use of squibs, so people just seem to fall over when guns are fired in their general direction too. Perhaps it’s a problem with HD as opposed to the viewing method of choice for low-budget action, a crappy VHS tape, as sometimes all you notice are the extras holding guns in the background who’ve clearly got no idea what to do.

The actual one-on-one fights are decent, though, with Lundgren (who’d apparently just qualified for his third-degree black belt in karate before filming started) acquitting himself well. The General, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, who you’ll have seen in hundreds of similar movies, is great too, and there’s a surprisingly good bit of fighting from Dolph’s sidekick, Gary Hudson (a fine “That Guy” actor).

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It’s a curious one. For all the interesting choices it makes, it’s hampered by a hundred little things, niggles that you’ll notice in pretty much every scene. Florentine certainly improved, but Dolph seems like he had stopped caring a few years previously, and realised that just scowling and kicking ass were all he needed to do. Shame. I think this also qualifies for our misleading title award – no bridges, no dragons, nothing you could metaphorically call a “bridge” either.

Rating: thumbs in the middle

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