The character of Richard Dragon was created by the late Denny O'Neil and Jim Berry (under the name Jim Dennis) for the 1974 pulp novel 'Kung Fu Master, Richard Dragon: Dragon's Fists'. Not long after, the red-haired martial arts master was adapted as an ongoing series at DC Comics. While never achieving the status that Shang-Chi did for rival Marvel, Dragon obviously has his fans since Warner Bros. Animation and DC Entertainment have decided to brush the dust off him for an animated feature, 'Batman: Soul of the Dragon'.
The film opens in the 1970s with a secret agent, Richard Dragon (voiced by Mark Dacascos, 'John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum'), infiltrating a shady millionaire's mansion. There's something sinister about the snake-eyed Jeffrey Burr (Josh Keaton) and Richard finds an ominous clue. After a decimating some thugs while eating an apple and then making a high-flying escape, he travels to Gotham City to reconnect with an old friend.
Bruce Wayne is stunned to find Richard in his penthouse. The film flashes back to Bruce as a troubled young man. He travels to Nanda Parbat, a secret monastery hidden on a snowy mountain. Burdened by the guilt of his parent's murder, Bruce asks the wise O-Sensei (James Hong, 'Abominable') to train him to defeat evil. Bruce is introduced to Richard, Shiva (Kelly Hu, TV's 'Arrow'), Jade (Jamie Chung, TV's 'The Gifted'), Ben Turner (Michael Jai White, 'Dragged Across Concrete'), and Rip Jagger (Chris Cox). O-Sensei's disciples compete brutally during his gruelling training regime. Bruce learns quickly that his fame and fortune are viewed with contempt by the other students. One of the more interesting (if underutilized) elements of the story is that Batman is outclassed by these martial artists in terms of his hand-to-hand combat prowess.
In the present, Richard informs Bruce that O-Sensei's most valued possession, a Muramasa sword called Soul Breaker, is being hunted by a cult called Kobra. They must reunite the trainees to prevent the cult of Kobra from enacting a heinous plan. But O-Sensei's disciples did not part ways in a friendly manner. A devastating event at the monastery clouds all of their destinies and they must overcome their bitter past to defeat a truly monstrous enemy.
'Batman: Soul of the Dragon' is essentially a combination of 'Enter the Dragon' and 'Live and Let Die'. It's loaded with martial arts duels, high-speed chases, serpent-inspired supernatural themes and funky musical cues. The protagonists are drawn from the original 70s comic series (an ultra-obscure one-off character named The Swiss receives a sizable role) as well as DC Comics' extremely kooky martial arts universe. Lady Shiva, Bronze Tiger, and O-Sensei stay close to the source material. King Snake, Judomaster, Lady Eve and Cheshire... not so much.
While the voice acting is solid from a cast of actors who have all previously dabbled in the genre (Michael Jai White has now played Ben Turner in both animation and on The CW's 'Arrow'), the animation is just serviceable, while the action sequences are mostly uninspired. The biggest issue with 'Batman: Soul of the Dragon' is that Batman is shoehorned into it. Clearly there is a mandate from Warner Bros. that all DC animated films should include either Batman or Superman. There have been forty of these movies since 2007, and by my count, only five of them haven't featured either Batman or Superman, and three of those five were among the first few releases. Since 2014, they've released a dozen films that have the name "Batman" in the title.
The biggest issue with 'Batman: Soul of the Dragon' is that Batman is shoehorned into it. Clearly there is a mandate from Warner Bros. that all DC animated films should include either Batman or Superman
Obviously, it's the corporate arm of Warner Bros., not the creative minds behind the movies, that think that they can't sell DC characters without their two most recognisable properties. This isn't a problem if it's done organically, but Batman's inclusion feels forced into 'Batman: Soul of the Dragon' (at the very least, he was used to get the production approved). The film struggles to handle his presence within those parameters.
Since a portion of the film is devoted to Batman, the rest of the character development is lacking across the board. In particular, Richard Dragon desperately needed some fleshing out. He's supposed to be the star of this show, but it's never explained how he got to the monastery and became O-Sensei's best pupil (even the hero of 'Enter the Dragon' had a flashback and some personal motivation). While Denny O'Neill's comic imagined Richard as a Caucasian redhead, here he's an Asian character in the vein of Bruce Lee. In itself, that doesn't present a problem, but if you look at the comic book portrayals of the character in the past twenty years (where he's been a zen spy, an angry young man, a crippled middle-aged guy in a wheelchair, and a Latin American crimelord), his mutable appearance implies that DC Comics doesn't have any idea how to push him into mainstream popularity.
'Batman: Soul of the Dragon' was a chance to reinvent an old and potentially interesting character and launch him into its modern canon. However, Warner Bros. has to start taking chances on movies with other heroes in them besides Batman if it wants its lesser-known properties to get some time in the spotlight.