The Spoony One | Apr 4 2009 | more notation(s) | 

A Review by Noah Antwiler

If ever a movie promised epic, balls-to-the-wall fantasy hack-and-slash adventure, it's Dragonslayer: a no-nonsense title that sums up everything you need to know about the plot in one word. When it first came out in 1981 I wasn't even out of diapers, but it held a place of honor in our LaserDisc collection for many years as the only fantasy movie. I hated it at that young age because it's certainly not a kid's movie. In fact, it scared the cheese out of me. This is probably the ugliest, filthiest, most uncomfortably violent fantasy movie I've ever seen, which in a strange way is a compliment to its art direction, but it's certainly not a traditional pulp fantasy movie. Most movies of this genre involve feats of stylized combat, swashbuckling and feats of derring-do, which help to blunt what would otherwise be shockingly bloody movies. Imagine how much darker Star Wars would have been if Han Solo shot a stormtrooper in the throat and we watched him slowly gurgle to death, or if Jabba the Hutt chained Leia to a post and we watched as Sarlaac tentacles peeled her skin off. It's the kind of violence most movies gloss over, but Dragonslayer revels in. It's an uncomfortable movie to watch.

Set in an indistinct, craggy region of Europe sometime in the scuzziest years of the Dark Ages, it's thematically similar to 2007's Beowulf, which focused on the transition from a mythological age of heroes and the worship of pagan gods to the rise of the Christian religion. Neither movie really accomplished much by bringing such high-minded concepts to the table. It just makes you wish they'd stop with all this pseudo-historical navel-gazing and get on with the killing and the razing. Of course, then you usually end up with movies like Reign of Fire and Dungeon Siege, so you begin to see why fantasy movies tend toward the crap end of the spectrum. Seriously, the only reason we like most of these movies is because they're so bad they're funny.

Anyway, a group of villagers petition the last surviving wizard, Ulrich, to help them slay the elder dragon that's been periodically scourging the slithy toves. Their liege, King Spineless of Wussmore has cut a deal with the dragon-- which any Shadowrun player knows you should never, ever do-- and offered the wyrm monthly virgin sacrifices, which, as you can imagine, has sent his poll numbers into the toilet. Already you're thinking, "hey great, let's break out the magic swirling hula hoops and get Hawk the Slayer in on this," because that would be awesome. But Ulrich agrees to take on the quest despite his venerable age and immediately gets stabbed in the heart while attempting to prove to the villagers that no weapon can harm him.. So much for that. Remember, fledgling wizards, cast Stoneskin first thing in the morning before inviting your friends to impale you at parties.

The guy who stabbed Ulrich is one of the king's men, a greasy dude named Tyrian with a gigantic whitefro who seems to be the villain in this movie for absolutely no reason. He just shows up and starts acting all hostile. Maybe he rolled Emnity Toward Class: Magic-User or something. But it seems to come as a complete surprise when Ulrich dies, even to Tyrian. After all, he asks Tyrian to stab him. The dark knight shuffles off into the woods looking a little sheepish, leaving the villagers muttering about how they have to march all the way back with nothing to show for their trouble, and how magic is a total crock. But surely that's not the end of the movie, is it? Who else will answer the call to adventure?

It's none other than Ulrich's bumbling apprentice Galen, played by Peter MacNicol, better known to you as "the weaselly guy from Ally McBeal." Just try to picture the Ally McBeal guy donning armor and hefting a spear, commanding eldritch forces and engaging in mortal combat with a dragon. If it helps, his character was named Johnny Cage in that show. Johnny Cage...Mortal Kombat...get it? Well okay, so maybe he's not the most intimidating of warriors. Even as a wizard he looks kind of weenie. But hey, he's the only protagonist we've got. He scours the wizard's tower for magical swag and eventually finds a powerful amulet that looks like one of those dragon-claw necklace tchotchkes you'd buy at the Renaissance Festival that lets him work actual magic. And when I say "magic," I mean he masters the spells Ghost Hand and Pyrotechnics. This discovery somehow gives him the delusion that he can best a dragon in one-on-one combat, so he chases after the villagers to declare that he'll be their hero.

Once the laughter dies down, the villagers figure there's no harm in letting him try. They could just chalk it up to another virgin sacrifice when he screws up. As they journey back to the kingdom, however, Tyrian resurfaces and assassinates Galen's hireling with a longbow. Why? I have no bloody clue. Seriously, what is Tyrian's problem? If he had a personal grudge against wizards, that's fine, but he goes out of his way to stalk and murder Galen's pack-bearer? This is one villain with weird impulse control issues. Even funnier, it plays out almost exactly like the "message for you, sir!" scene from Holy Grail that it makes the whole scene impossible to take seriously.

But seriously, the whole movie is riddled with plot holes you could gate a pit fiend through, and most of them are labeled "Character Motivation." Why does the dragon agree to this monthly tribute when the kingdom is obviously powerless to resist it? Why is Galen so eager to fight the world's most dangerous mythical beast? At first I thought he was doing it to impress Valerian, the woman who leads the villagers, but then I realized that Galen doesn't even discover that Valerian is a woman until much later! The movie actually broke out one of the most hackneyed, unrealistic movie clichés ever: a female character masquerading as a man so perfectly that nobody has a clue. Look, I won't deny that it's certainly possible for a woman to disguise herself convincingly as a man; I've seen Maury Povich. Let's just say that it takes a "special" (read: fugly) breed of woman and sometimes a roll of duct tape to pull off, and even then, as soon as she speaks the jig is up. It worked in Lord of the Rings because Eowyn wore heavy armor and kept her mouth shut. In Dragonslayer you wonder how she managed to fool the entire village for over twenty years simply by wearing pants.

The group heads straight to the dragon's lair, where Galen uses his amulet to start a rockslide and seal off the cave. This succeeds only in pissing the dragon off, and while the villagers are having a rather premature victory feast the dragon digs herself out and flies over to tell them that the rumors of her death were greatly exaggerated. Unfortunately, the dragon only speaks in Napalm, a curious ancient language that you don't really need to speak to understand. Galen decides that he's going to have to take a more hands-on approach to dragonslaying and goes back to Valerian to ask her dad (who is, conveniently, the village blacksmith) for some weapons and armor. Here's where the movie gets hilarious, because Pops snaps his fingers and says "I've got just the thing!" He leads Galen to a hiding place near a waterfall and produces a magic spear that he made years ago called Dragonslayer and apparently forgot about until now. I repeat: a common village blacksmith somehow crafted the sharpest spear known to man, hid it underwater for no reason, and when an actual dragon started pillaging the countryside saw no use for a weapon he called Dragonslayer. "Now where did I put that Bolt of Dragon Slaying..."

It turns out that the dragon has a critical weakness to pointy sticks that nobody ever discovered before, which helps our first-level magic-user hero to deliver a fairly savage ass-kicking to the dragon until the shaft breaks off. The loss of his weapon and the dragon's own injuries force a mutual withdrawal, but now that Galen no longer has a spear the quest seems hopeless. That was the kingdom's only pointy stick! The king's only solution is to throw more virgins at the problem, and the Christian zealots attempt to send their own clerics, but their strategy of "stand in front of its mouth and wave a cross at it" goes about as well as you'd expect. Actually, I did think the Christians had a shot, especially since their leader is played by none other than Emperor Palpatine himself, Ian McDiarmid. The sight of a priest throwing Sith lightning at a dragon would have been awesome. A little hard to resolve the conflicting theologies, I guess...but awesome! I guess everything didn't proceed exactly as he had foreseen.

Speaking of foresight, Galen suddenly figures out that his master Ulrich had all this planned from the beginning. He was too old and frail to make the overland journey himself, Galen surmises, but the wizard distilled his essence into his own ashes and the magical amulet so that he could be brought back from the dead on the spot. And like that, he casts the ashes into some water and Ulrich returns-- I kid you not-- as Ulrich the White. The resurrected wizard rolls up his sleeves and teleports to the top of a nearby mountain for the last battle with the nefarious beastie. Oh, so now he can teleport. He couldn't warp to the huge kingdom, but he can zap his octogenarian butt up a mountain and start throwing lightning bolts with casual gestures of his hands. Even crazier, he hands Galen the amulet and tells him to destroy it "when the time is right." During the entire battle, Galen and Valerian argue and wrestle with one another over when they should carry out this last cryptic command. The time comes when the dragon scoops him up in its talons, and when the amulet is destroyed, Ulrich explodes in a huge fireball that consumes the beast. What is with this guy? Why does he feel compelled to be so mysterious and withhold so much information? Exactly what part of the plan would not have been better served by pulling Galen aside from the very beginning and saying "Listen kid, I'm too cheap to buy a horse, so I need you to fake my death, carry my ashes for two weeks, and have me raised from the dead when you get there," or "when you smash the amulet I'll explode, so wait until the dragon eats me and that'll really fix its wagon." Why the deception? Why fake his death? Why risk everything on Galen not being able to figure out a load of cryptic Vorlon nonsense before he does something stupid like charging an elder wyrm with a pointy stick by himself? None of it makes any sense!

And if that wasn't bad enough, King Butthead and the Christian Coalition instantly run up to the dragon's carcass and stick their swords in it so they can take credit for the kill, Galen walks off with exactly zero dragon hoard, a bunch of virgin-killing ninnies just swiped his Honor points, and his experience point ratio is in the crapper because his high-level mentor got involved. A bad experience like that will put you off dragon-slaying forever. A shame, too, because if he'd kept at it, he might have saved us from watching Dragonheart.

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