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Batman: Soul of the Dragon Review

Batman: Soul of the Dragon marks the 40th installment in the long-running DC Universe Movies line, and it’s also among the most unique. Rather than act as a direct adaptation of any particular DC Comics storyline, it loosely draws from the work of the late Denny O’Neil to give the DCU a ’70s martial arts movie makeover. If Warner Bros. had made a Batman movie in 1973 starring Bruce Lee, Steve McQueen, and Jim Kelly, it would have gone a little something like this. The resulting stew is every bit as fun and campy as it sounds, though, like many martial arts movies, the characters often take a backseat to the action.Soul of the Dragon casts Grimm star David Giuntoli as the Dark Knight, who in this ’70s setting is a relative newcomer to the superhero game and struggling to balance the dueling sides of his life. Fate quickly reunites him with his old martial arts buddies Richard Dragon (Mark Dacascos), Lady Shiva (Kelly Hu) and Ben Turner (Michael Jai White), as the butt-kicking quartet takes on the terrorist organization Kobra and its ringleader Jeffrey Burr (Josh Keaton). Along the way, viewers are treated to extensive flashbacks to our heroes’ early years training in Nanda Parbat under the sly, watchful eye of O-Sensei (James Hong).Plot matters little here, which is just as well given how often DC’s animated movies have buckled under the constraints of the standard 70-minute running time. Soul of the Dragon wastes little time before the wandering hero Richard Dragon gets the old gang back together and begins battling endless armies of ninja warriors and demonic snake monsters. The flashbacks serve to flesh out the collective group dynamic and the various characters’ motivations, but the plot is about as straightforward as it gets in the DCU.In terms of fun factor, Soul of the Dragon doesn’t disappoint. The film obviously borrows liberally from ’70s martial arts classics like Enter the Dragon. There’s also a whiff of the classic James Bond movies and their globetrotting international intrigue. Nor does the movie lose touch with the thoughtful, philosophical framework of O’Neil’s work on books like Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter. The whole thing plays like a loving throwback to a simpler time in action movie-making.

That retro influence is directly reflected in the animation and music. While Soul of the Dragon’s animation style doesn’t entirely escape the generic same-ness that hinders most of these projects, the vintage character designs and tech certainly help. So too does composer Joachim Horsley’s funk-heavy score. It’s a shame the stylish opening credits sequence isn’t more reflective of the movie’s visual style as a whole, but that’s always been where the relatively modest budgets of these direct-to-video projects have been most apparent.

The voice cast is almost uniformly great, fortunately. Giuntoli’s Batman is a bit too bland compared to his predecessors, though he does do a fine job of drawing a subtle distinction between the dark knight and his alter ego, projecting a greater aura of confidence whenever Bruce dons his cape and cowl. Dacascos is pitch-perfect as Richard Dragon, bringing a much-needed dose of warmth and humor to a character who’s written as very straightforward. Arrow veterans Hu and White are also inspired casting choices. Hu actually seems more at home with the deadly, aloof Lady Shiva than she did as China White, while White is allowed to explore very different sides of a character who always stood out on Arrow. The fact that White is technically reprising his Arrow role highlights the fact that this voice cast would probably work just as well in live-action. Who knows? Maybe that’ll even happen someday.

Batman: Soul of the Dragon

Entertaining as it is, Soul of the Dragon isn’t without its storytelling problems. The simple, straightforward plot isn’t an issue so much as the uneven character development over the course of the film. Soul of the Dragon emphasizes the family nature of the Batman/Richard Dragon/Lady Shiva/Ben Turner quartet, but even with the flashbacks it never fleshes out their shared history to the extent it should. Dragon himself receives almost no development. His one defining character trait is “being really good at martial arts” in a movie where nearly every character fits that description. Again, Dacascos is able to make the most out of his limited material, but it’s a shame to see such a fascinating character tamped down to become a generic martial arts movie protagonist.

Perhaps the one real flaw of Batman: Soul of the Dragon is that it doesn’t really need Batman in the first place. That would certainly be truer to O’Neil’s Richard Dragon stories. Had the Dark Knight been excised from the plot, there would have been more room to focus on the remaining three characters and their respective origins. It certainly would have been nice to see more of Turner’s history that’s glossed over in a quick montage sequence. You can’t entirely fault DC here, as it’s obviously much, much easier to market a movie with Batman plastered front and center. Still, it would be nice if the DC Universe Movies line could finally get to a place where it’s not so wholly dependent on the Dark Knight or the Man of Steel.

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