I don’t normally review Batman cartoons (I think the only time I have before is the Suicide Squad one, ASSAULT ON ARKHAM), but I think you will agree that this one falls into my jurisdiction. In fact, it’s so weirdly specific to my particular areas of interest that during the ‘70s-inspired opening credits montage with funky theme song, after seeing the names Mark Dacascos and Michael Jai White, Mrs. Vern turned to me in disbelief and said, “Did they make this only for you?”
Yeah, actually, it seems they did, so thanks, guys!
No joke, this is an animated movie set in the 1970s, based in the DC Comics universe but taking most of its template from kung fu movies. Its spy movie opening and funky, wah-wah heavy score are clearly homaging ENTER THE DRAGON, and there’s definitely some Jim Kelly/Blaxploitation influence in there, but its flashback structure mostly splits between an old school kung fu training movie and a getting-the-band-back-together type story. Two of my favorite plot structures in one.
It’s technically a Batman movie because it has Batman in it, but it’s more like a buddy movie with Bruce Wayne (voiced by David Giuntoli, 13 HOURS) as the co-lead. He’s a delightfully era appropriate Bruce Wayne, and not in a parody way at all. He looks like your standard square-jawed Bruce but he has sideburns, a wide collar and a large belt buckle holding up his flared jeans. He lives in a big rich guy penthouse bachelor pad over a night club, and when an old friend shows up he walks over to the bar to pour some drinks.
That old friend, arguably the main character, is martial arts master and “globe-trotting super spy” Richard Dragon (Dacascos). He has discovered that a powerful snake cult/terrorist group (long story) has obtained a mystical gate associated with his late master, O-Sensei (James Hong, TALONS OF THE EAGLE), and he doesn’t trust his government bosses to deal with it, so he’s gathering the surviving members of O-Sensei’s class, starting with Bruce. And we skip back to see them training on a mystical mountain top, learning various lessons and developing relationships that relate to the conflict today.
The other students include Shiva (Kelly Hu, THE SCORPION KING, X2, Martial Law), Jade (Jamie Chung, SORORITY ROW, THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS, EDEN, SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR) and Ben “Bronze Tiger” Turner (Michael Jai White [!!!]). They each have their own little arcs and subplots going, but my favorite is when Ben and Bruce get in a fight over a bowl of rice and Ben claims that people in his neighborhood lose their parents all the time without deciding the whole world revolves around them. Harsh! Bruce is losing, his entire face bruised, bloody and swollen, but he keeps getting back up even when he can barely stand. Eventually Ben has to respect it, so he laughs, puts his arm around him and nicknames him “White Rice.”
So yeah, this was made to order for me, and in addition to Fight Brotherhood, MJW gets to do a version of the ROLLING THUNDER “I’ll get my gear.” Also, Richard Dragon eats an apple whiling fighting some guys, in tribute to THE BIG BOSS and/or my personal preference for casual snacking during fights. These are genuine badass-cinema thrills, and they work partly because they’re not just celebrity voices, they’re genuinely good performances, from the dialogue to the martial arts grunting. Ben uses some ‘70s terms (baby, turkey, dig this) but White keeps it a little lower key than he would playing Black Dynamite (which, remember, he also did in animation), so the friendship stuff really works. And honestly, as much as I love Dacascos, I didn’t expect him to be the MVP of the movie. His chemistry with Giuntoli as Bruce is great and the way they handle his super hero lifestyle – which he refers to as “my own scene going on” – is really funny and original. The costume is kind of like this freaky thing Richard sees his friend do. Bruce doesn’t seem comfortable talking about it, but Richard encourages him to do it because he sees how much it scares their opponents. Bob Kane wrote that “criminals are a superstitious cowardly lot, so my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts,” and Richard confirms that those guys were “scared shitless.”
I wouldn’t say I have much knowledge of the character Richard Dragon, but I do have issue #2 of his comic plucked from a 99 cent bin because I have a fascination with ‘70s kung-fu-sploitation. Also because his name is Richard Dragon! I love that kinda shit. DC writer Dennis O’Neil apparently created him (under the pseudonym Jim Dennis) for a 1974 novel called Kung Fu Master Richard Dragon: Dragon’s Fists before introducing him to comics in Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter. On the cover of the book – which I have not been able to find for a price I would be willing to spend – he looks like he could maybe be Asian, but in the comics he’s drawn as a very white dude. In SOUL OF THE DRAGON he’s drawn unambiguously Asian, so this is a rare case of reverse white-washing, or de-appropriating. I respect it and think it’s the right thing to do, but I hope it’s okay that I still want to be Richard Dragon when I grow up.
I should mention that this is an R-rated movie. There is a little cursing and a ninja gets decapitated, but not nearly as graphically as in the last R-rated DTV cartoon I watched, MORTAL KOMBAT LEGENDS: SCORPION’S REVENGE. Honestly the best usage of it is in the most unpleasant scene, when the villain Kobra (Josh Keaton, NEWSIES) locks a prostitute in a viewing room to watch her be scared by his snakes. I don’t enjoy watching that, but it has a genuinely gross (without being explicit) perviness to it that seems authentic to the era and demographic of the movies they’re paying tribute to.
I also want to acknowledge the score by Joachim Horsley (2307: WINTER’S DREAM), because it’s so common for ’70s-tribute scores to be too cheesy with their faking of the funk. This one is well executed, and being so specifically working in Lalo Schifrin mode excuses it being more slick and polished than, say, TRUCK TURNER or BLACK BELT JONES.
The only real criticism I have about the movie is that it’s so faithfully based on live action movies that I found myself sort of removed and thinking of it as a simulation of what a non-existent live action movie really made in the ‘70s could be like. And obviously the fights, as well drawn as they are, don’t have the same power as a live action fight. I wish they had the resources for a little more detailed and dimensional animation, and that they’d throw some film grain on there (it looks too clean for the era in my opinion). But they do take advantage of the medium and the comic book origins because it turns into magic and monsters and shit by the end, and there are some pretty cool looking stylized parts, like this:
…which happens when Ben is telling the story of a one man mission to an evil island, and when he tells them he was nicknamed “Bronze Tiger” his friends are excited and think it’s a cool name. “Nice!”
So these complaints are all nitpicks. I had a great time with this cartoon.
Director Sam Liu, before directing a whole shit ton of Batman and DC Comics related movies and shows, also did some Roughnecks: The Starship Troopers Chronicles. Writer Jeremy Adams did a bunch of those LEGO cartoons but also that show Supernatural and the aforementioned MORTAL KOMBAT/SCORPION movie I enjoyed.