The latter-day career of David Carradine offered some remarkable film opportunities to the former "Kung Fu" hero. Sure, with the exception of Kill Bill - Volume Two, these were mostly low-budget DTV releases, but they nevertheless let him explore a variety of roles that true fans ought to be eager to investigate. One of the more ambitious projects he undertook during the last four years of his life was a two-part TV miniseries set in 19th century China, directed by TV veteran David Wu (The Snow Queen). Disappointingly, even though this miniature epic had the potential to be a TV masterpiece like Merlin or Arabian Nights, it wound up being a fairly mediocre adventure, the biggest asset of which was Carradine himself. Unless you're a die-hard fan of the prominently-featured costar, then you'll be hard-pressed to find reason to sit through its three-hour entirety.
The story: a retelling of "The Prince of Baghdad" prompted by a young Caucasian street urchin named D.B. (John Reardon, Merlin's Apprentice) seeking fortune for his underground family of street children. When foreign princes congregate to compete in treasure-hunting quests for the right to marry the local governor's daughter, Princess Wei Li (Desiree Ann Siahaan, Marco Polo), D.B. poses as a nobleman so he can gain access to the palace and steal treasure...but eventually, his growing feelings for the princess and his rivalry with the underhanded Mongolian Prince of the North (Rupert Graves, The Madness of King George) urge both him and his accompanying mentor Bird (Carradine) to broaden their ambitions at great personal risk.
For a movie shot in a single location (Heng Dian's "TV City"), "Son of the Dragon" has a wide scope: while the characters always end up returning to the palace site, you get a sense of having traveled a good distance inbetween scenes, with the forests and rivers and mountainsides all looking authentic. With that said, for a film that relies heavily on art direction, the aesthetics are solid but not striking: occasional moments of visual grandeur are undermined frequently by plastic-looking interior sets and costumes that look like...well, costumes. Even more disappointing are the two CGI centerpieces that are well below the standards of what can be accomplished on television: the stone dragon coming to life and the magic carpet flight require both low standards and the ability to loftily suspend disbelief, otherwise you'll be rudely jarred out of the mood of these two supposed high points.
Speaking of the mood, it's also a bit faulty: despite being an archetypical adventure tale with a vague socio-historical message concerning orphan plight and racism in China thrown in, the story feels extremely superficial and un-heartfelt. Though nobody in the cast (which also includes Theresa Lee as D.B.'s crush and Kay Long Tim of Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story as the governor) gives an outright bad performance, few performers seem capable of playing their role past the two-dimensional stage. Then again, this could be due to the story itself being fairly untied: aside from not really becoming exciting until the second half of the show, the entire magic aspect is essential to the story but so poorly explained (why does Bird have an evil twin? - how can the Mongolian prince utilize a nameplate like a voodoo doll?) that there will be plenty of head-scratching going on by the time the credits roll.
No Carradine outing could be complete without a healthy dose of martial arts, but even here the bag is mixed: Siahaan and Lee have a beautiful Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-esque sparring session early in the movie, but nearly every encounter afterwards can be overlooked, culminating in a very disappointing one-on-one bout between Carradine and Eddy Ko (PTU: Police Tactical Unit) which is pretty much just two old fogies trying to look spry as they mime their way through a swordfight. In the end, the entire movie feels like a mime-job: while I admire the obvious effort that's been put into trying to make this film appear grand, the filmmakers had clearly tackled a project that's too big for them and therefore resorted to keeping everything very exterior and shallow...neither of which a film of this length can afford to be.