You will believe,” goes the ad line for Dragonheart. Well, sorry: No, I will not. That is to say, Dragonheart’s neatest trick is also its crucial flaw. In this medieval adventure-fantasy, starring Dennis Quaid as a noble knight, Sean Connery provides the voice for the last dragon on earth, an understandably huffy fire breather named Draco. This creature is one of those computer-animated doozies that would certainly seem to match what most of us probably think of as a dragon. But when the big scaly green thing designed by Industrial Light & Magic opened its amazingly expressive mouth and that warm Scottish burr of Connery’s came out, I found it impossible to make the essential leap of dramatic faith. Instead of being drawn into Dragonheart’s tale of swords and sorcery, I frequently sat there thinking things like Gee, I wonder how much time it took Connery to record his lines.
It’s too bad, because in other respects Dragonheart is a corker. Quaid plays Bowen, a top-of-the-line battler employed at the start of the movie to train a young prince, Einon, in matters of self-defense and the age-old code of knightly decency. But Einon rejects the noble qualities Bowen tries to instill in him, and grows up to become a nasty, sneering king played by today’s foremost cinematic sneerer, David Thewlis (Naked). While Bowen goes on to become a far-roaming freelance knight, King Einon develops into a cruel tyrant whose oppressive policies lead the rabble to revolt.
The least revolting of the rabble is the thick-tressed Kara (Dina Meyer of Johnny Mnemonic, but best remembered for singeing Luke Perry’s sideburns as a hotsy professor on Beverly Hills, 90210). Once Bowen gets a load of Kara, he knows which side of this conflict he’s on, and turns against his former student to try and overthrow the king.
And the dragon? He’s siding with Bowen against the king, with whom Draco is connected in an odd way. In Charles Edward Pogue’s cleverly fanciful screenplay, the dragon had, years before, given half his heart to Einon when the still-reliable youth was gravely wounded. Einon lived, but one result of the semi-organ donation is that any pain Einon feels, Draco also experiences, and vice versa. This is what gives Dragonheart its core of emotion: We want to see Einon punished even unto death; yet his death will also result in the demise of Draco, who laments ”this half heart that cost me my soul.” Bowen’s awareness of his dilemma — whether to kill the king, as his own code of honor demands, and therefore slay a dragon he’s come to respect — gives his character a heroic poignancy.
In a deceptively straightforward good-guy role, Quaid is awfully shrewd. Simply to portray an idealistic knight, let alone one with a shag-cut hairdo that cannot help but remind the nonmedieval viewer of various members of Judas Priest, requires a certain meticulous self-mockery. Quaid has a knack for pulling off this sort of acting challenge; he was just as believable a swashbuckler in the underrated 1984 fantasy film Dreamscape.
Dragonheart director Rob Cohen seems to have a career theme going — his previous movie was Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. Cohen wants to give Dragonheart the moral framework and vivid vulgarity of a good fairy tale, and much of the time he succeeds. He surrounds Bowen and the creature with a lively supporting cast, which includes Pete Postlethwaite (In the Name of the Father) as a chatty monk and a glowingly lovely Julie Christie — absent from the big screen for six years! — as Einon’s grimly embarrassed mother.
But the bottom line is, to buy into Dragonheart, you have to buy into the dragon. Draco is easy to like — love the way he starts campfires for Bowen by pressing one nostril closed and emitting a precise flick of flame through the other, for example. If only Sean Connery didn’t have such a wonderfully distinctive voice, Draco might live and breathe as his own creature. As it is, he’s more like James Bond as The Last Dragon: Agent 001. B