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The Dragon-Slaying Business Isn't What It Used to Be

'Twister" and "Mission: Impossible" blew into multiplexes just before Memorial Day, when the summer blockbuster season traditionally blasts off, and "The Rock" and "Independence Day" are poised to knock our socks the rest of the way off. Sandwiched between these humongous epics is "Dragonheart," no intimate little drama, but more modest than the screen-shakers it's competing against.

Top billing goes to Dennis Quaid as Bowen, a medieval knight with a strong arm, a trusty sword, and a trade that doesn't exactly flourish anymore: He's a dragon slayer, tramping the countryside in search of monsters to kill for a healthy fee from the peasants who hire him.

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He cuts a dashing figure as he goes about his business, but his ideals are less lofty than in his youth, when he served as mentor to Einon, a young prince (David Thewlis) destined to rule the land. Einon has grown into a dangerous despot, terrorizing his people and forgetting the debt he owes our hero, who once saved his life by appealing to the magical powers of a benevolent dragon hanging out in a local cave.

Bowen is the hero, and Einon is the villain, but the reason for seeing "Dragonheart" is naturally that dragon. His name is Draco, and while he's a nasty-looking critter on the outside, on the inside he's like an overgrown Muppet with the nicest disposition this side of Kermit and company.

Dragons are really our friends, the film informs us, but we humans have forgotten their goodness and projected our own bad tendencies onto them.

Not that this makes much difference, since the dragon of this tale is the last one on Earth, and when he's gone the creatures will survive only in half-remembered myths. He may be gone pretty soon, too, since his existence is magically linked to Einon's wicked life. Getting rid of the tyrant could require Draco's death as a precondition, and Draco is such a sweetie that he's ready to make that sacrifice.

"Dragonheart" has a few flashes of genuine wit. My favorite is near the beginning, when a poetry-writing monk (Pete Postlethwaite) pens a worshipful ode to Bowen's skill as a dragonslayer, not noticing that our hero's latest exploit has entered a ridiculous standoff with Bowen embarassingly stuck in the dragon's mouth.

There's also some amusing banter, as when Draco keeps reminding Bowen that when he's gone the dragon-slaying business will be dead as a doornail, too. Is this a sly reference to changing employment trends, Middle Ages style?

"Dragonheart" doesn't have much substance, though, and the superb animation of Draco's lips- matching Sean Connery's off-screen voice with remarkable precision - is slim competition for the helicopter crash of "Mission: Impossible" or the twisters of "Twister."

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The adventure is also more violent than it had to be, swamping Draco's charms in a whole lot of mayhem. Dragons may be more virtuous than we thought, but we humans still have an unfortunate weakness for sanguinary spectacles.

*'Dragonheart' has a PG-13 rating. It contains a good deal of graphic violence.

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