Dragon Fighter (2003): Cain of Fire

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In SyFy’s pantheon of giant marauding creatures, dragons have never really caught on in the same way that sharks and snakes have — though it is worth noting that 2004’s Dragon Storm did, for a long time, hold the record for the channel’s most-watched Original movie [1]. Interestingly, Dragon Storm’s success had bumped a film called Epoch (2001) from pole position, which must have pleased Dragon Storm and Epoch’s producers, the Unified Film Organization, no end considering their previous stab at fire-breathing mayhem, DRAGON FIGHTER, sat at the lower end of SyFy’s viewership following its debut at 9PM on Saturday 4th January ‘03 [2]. 

Preceded by a conceptually fitting showing of Universal’s straight-to-video sequel Dragonheart: A New Beginning (2000), Dragon Fighter was designed by UFO’s chieftain, Phillip J. Roth, to ride what he hoped would be the wave of wyvern frenzy kickstarted by Touchstone’s Reign of Fire (2002). Sadly, it didn’t quite happen like that. Reign of Fire failed to set the box office alight (sorry), causing Dragon Fighter to tug only at the coattails of the film’s admittedly more successful video and DVD release. The trickle-down effect was that Roth’s cash-in floundered as a rental property, too. And that’s a shame, really. While neither the best that SyFy or UFO have to offer, Dragon Fighter is a decent piece of entertainment, and a nice reminder that, before he became an unpleasant right-wing mouthpiece, Dean Cain was an appealing B-movie leading man.

Reuniting with Roth after their awesome Alien (1979)-riffing snakesploiter Boa (2002) — of which Dragon Fighter is basically a beat-for-beat copy — Cain exhibits a nice mix of machismo and wise-ass charisma as Captain Dan Carver. Employed by UFO regular Robert Zachar’s arrogant scientist, Dr. Drackovitch, to oversee security at a top secret underground research facility, Carver’s military expertise comes in handy when Drackovitch’s latest project — a genetically engineered dragon, natch — busts out and begins stalking the lab’s corridors and culverts, once again Alien-style. And that’s pretty much that — albeit Roth goes a step further than Boa’s gentler strain of Ridley Scott homagery by directly quoting Tom Skertt’s iconic death scene in one of Dragon Fighter’s standout action-horror sequences. 

Atoning for his (co-written) script’s slightly slack pace and thinner than even his usual characterisations, Roth — who, alas, now eschews directing in favour of producing — cements his status as one of DTV’s greatest eyes by ladling on the aesthetic gravy. Adding DePalma-esque split-screens to his sleek, Mann-tinged repertoire, Roth’s cinema-savvy vistas and use of a swirling Steadicam cause Dragon Fighter to look and feel bigger than it actually is, and move more than it actually does. However, what really stirs is Roth’s ability to milk the film’s CGI for all it’s worth. Bolstered by his impressively designed monster’s general air of coolness, Roth demonstrates an excellent understanding of what translates to screen and masks the FX’s obvious, budget-induced shortcomings with good ol’ fashioned technique — from light and shadow, to imaginative blocking and choreography. As such, Dragon Fighter’s hulking scorch-spitter is that rarest of beasts; a truly terrific SyFy kaiju that doesn’t need to be prefigured by any sort of context-framing disclaimer. It’s just disappointing that this efficient three star masterpiece isn’t a stronger offering as a whole.

As is Roth’s wont, Dragon Fighter was shot in Bulgaria and features several sets recognisable from other UFO flicks of the period, primarily Shark Hunter (2001), Python II (2002), and Interceptor Force 2 (2002) (aka ‘They Have Returned’). Roth mainstay Marcus Aurelius also appears as part of the cast.

USA/Bulgaria ● 2003 ● Sci-Fi, Action ● 89mins

Dean Cain, Robert Zachar, Kristine Byers ● Dir. Phillip J. Roth Wri. Michael Johnston (as ‘Michael Baldwin’) and Phillip J. Roth

[1] Dragon Storm clawed in a whopping 3million viewers upon its premiere broadcast on 24th January ‘04 and kept the top spot for over a decade, until it was pipped by the 3.9million viewers Sharknado 2: The Second One (2014) brought in on 30th July ‘14.
[2] At the form’s ‘00s peak, the average SyFy Original would attract between 1.2 and 2million people. 

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