If you've chosen to read this review with the assumption that, based on the title, the movie contains dragons, you – like me – assumed incorrectly and will be sorely disappointed. The only reason I volunteered to review this film was because I thought it was dragon-centric. Although I was wrong and initially let down, the movie ultimately changed my mind and turned out to be a decent little flick.
From Roland Joffé, the Academy Award nominated director of 'The Killing Fields' and 'The Mission,' 'There Be Dragons' depicts the true story of Josemaria Escrivá - the Spaniard who created the Catholic organization now known as Opus Dei – through the eyes of a fictional character who lived a life parallel to Josemaria's. What makes 'There Be Dragons' worthwhile is that it's more of a film about the man than the organization he established – much like 'The Motorcycle Diaries' was more about the origins of Ernesto Guevera de la Serna than his later revolutionary persona Ché Guevara.
Josemaria (Charlie Cox of 'Stardust') grew up in a small town in the mountains of Spain. As you would expect, families in Spain were torn apart by the civil war that arose in the 1930s. Being a Catholic priest, Josemaria's life was thrown off even more. Clergy were seen as part of the upper-class problem that reinforced the social classes of Spain's economy, so they were hunted down and killed by the militia. Maintaining faith in his god, Josemaria continued to practice his faith, holding secret mass and confession for his members by day and finding safe places to hide out by night. When Madrid became too dangerous, his brothers and followers took him into hiding, which Josemaria felt went against God's plan for him.
As if the war-torn story of Josemaria wasn't interesting enough, Joffé felt the need to include a contrasting character and story that, in many ways, trumps that of Josemaria. Played by Wes Bentley, the fictional character of Manolo Torres is said to have grown up with Josemaria, only to have fallen apart by social class distinctions. Josemaria grew up in a humble home, but Manolo's family was wealthy and viewed poverty as a contagious sickness, so their friendship was resolved. They were forced to be around one another while studying to become priests, but Manolo eventually dropped out and took to running the family business. When the civil war began, Manolo chose to join the other side and became like the ruthless killers that hunted down people like Josemaria.
The film opens in the early 1980s when Manolo's son, a writer in London, is hired to return to Spain, research and write a book on the life of Josemaria. When he breaks the news to his estranged father that he'll be returning home to investigate, death-bed Manolo comes out and explains everything – the terrible truth of his unforgettable past and his arch nemesis-like connection with Josemaria.
Josemaria's part of the story ends far too much earlier than the movie itself and the climax is given to seeing an emotional confrontation between dying Manolo and his son – whom we've hardly seen or come to know throughout the film. Instead of giving a solid ending to the non-fictional character in the film, the climax is lent to two fictional characters – one whom isn't present for 95 percent of the film and the other being an unlikeable villain. The ending is a wasted opportunity for greatness.
Had 'There Be Dragons' cut out the unnecessary contrived content that only adds noticeably artificial drama, it would have landed a solid rating between four and five stars. Much potential lies within this previously untapped storyline. But as is, I can't give it a score that high because of the story diversion and its capitalization on a predictable and cheap drama. It was the execution of the Josemaria Escrivá's story that slayed this dragon.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Fox has placed 'There Be Dragons' on a suitable Region A BD-50 in a blue eco-friendly keepcase. There's plenty of expected pre-menu content, but it's made entertaining by seeing what they clumped together on this disc. After a Fox vanity reel and a firmware disclaimer, we get the Fox World Cinema vanity reel (which this type of film deserves) followed by the trailers for 'In the Name of the King 2' and 'Atlas Shrugged: Part One' and 'Another Earth.'
'There Be Dragons' arrives on Blu-ray with a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encode presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Stylistically, there's a lot of great cinematography to behold and this clean and clear transfer truly allows you to relish in it.
From the get-go, everything is highly detailed. From the texture of papers and unbelievably soft fabrics to the perfect smoothness of a recently polished oak desk and individual specks of dust rising through a beam of sunlight – this is a fine example of truly high definition.
Like most movies set during wartime, the color palette is mostly gray and washed out. Fleshtone are actually fairly lifelike and the only color to carry any true vibrancy is red. The contrast is consistent with blacks being a bit overbearing and heavy. Some crushing is evident.
Compression artifacts, noise, DNR and edge enhancement aren't an issue, but aliasing is present on finely drawn maps, car grills, banisters and tightly woven fabric patterns. Banding doesn't appear throughout the movie, but it does show up during the credits. As the credits roll, stills are shown from the film as if they were pictures taken of the actual people. As they dissolve, banding runs rampant. Had they been real photos of Josemaria, it might be a distraction, but since it's just of the actors, it's not too bad.
Only one listening option is presented – an English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Being a multi-national title about a Spaniard, one might assume it be presented in Spanish, but this is not the case. The entire film is in English, the actors donning Spanish accents – unlike some films that use the British accent for anything set overseas.
The film opens with narration that's clear and perfectly audible through the center speaker. I don't know that I've heard a voice-over so rich in bass, clean and dynamic as this. But the deeper I got into the movie, the more I realized that a good portion of the sound was emitting solely from the front.
Fortunately, music and imaging effects make use of the surround and rear channels in the way that we prefer them to. The music is always well-spread, conveying the desired emotion, and the wartime effects are fantastically loud and booming. Gunshots pack a heavy punch – a few specific ones in total.
When 'There Be Dragons' focuses on the historical should-be central character, it iss entertaining and informative. His optimism, positivity and genuine concern for his fellow beings immediately makes you care for and like him. Unfortunately, more than half of the film gives the focus to his polar opposite, a completely fictional character. He's unlikeable and you frankly won't want to watch him. Knowing that it's a completely contrived character, the climax carries no weight whatsoever. The video quality is sharp and highly detailed, featuring only slight black clipping and occasional aliasing. The audio quality is decent, only centered more forward than it should be. The special features are neat, but a behind-the-scenes featurette or a historical documentary about Josemaria Escrivá would have been warmly welcome. All around, everything about this movie and Blu-ray could have been done better. Best kept a rental.