Home > Reviews > DRAGONHEART VENGEANCE – Mark McKenzie


February 18, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

I’m somewhat astonished that I am able to actually write the following sentence, but here we are: there are now five Dragonheart movies in the world. This unlikely franchise began back in 1996 with the enjoyable original film, which starred Dennis Quaid, featured Sean Connery voicing the dragon Draco, and received an Oscar nomination for its special effects. The first sequel, A New Beginning, was released in 2000, and the first prequel, The Sorcerer’s Curse, came out in 2015, followed by a second prequel – Battle for the Heartfire – in 2017. This new film, Dragonheart Vengeance, is yet another prequel, and has been released straight-to-streaming. It is directed by Ivan Silvestrini and stars Jack Kane as Lukas, a young farmer whose family is killed by raiders and who sets out on an epic quest for revenge, eventually forming an unlikely alliance with a sword-fighting mercenary named Darius (Joseph Millson), and an ice-breathing dragon named Siveth, voiced by Helena Bonham-Carter.

The score for Dragonheart Vengeance, as has been the case with all the Dragonheart sequels and prequels, is by the great Mark McKenzie. I’m sure I’ve written a variation on this before, but it’s worth stating here again: Mark McKenzie is one of the best film music composers of his generation, and the fact that over the last decade his only scores have been for Dragonheart movies, Hallmark Hall of Fame movies, and faith-based Mexican animated films (The Greatest Miracle, Max and Me), is one of the most appalling film music-related outrages of my lifetime. This is a man who studied with Pierre Boulez and Witold Lutoslawski, and who was one of the most in-demand orchestrators in Hollywood while still in his 20s. This is a man who, in the past, has been hand-picked by luminaries like John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner, Danny Elfman and John Barry and Alan Silvestri, to work on their scores. This is a composer whose music overflows with beauty and passion, gorgeous themes and strong emotion, sparkling orchestrations and masterful technical content. And yet, since making his solo film music composing debut in 1991, McKenzie has written just 21 feature scores, including this new one. He should have been locked down on two or three major studio features every year for the last two decades, across multiple genres. He should have been nominated for at least a couple of Oscars, and should be listed in the same breath as those composers I noted above. Instead… he’s scoring the fourth straight-to-video sequel to Dragonheart. It’s beyond infuriating.

To add insult to injury, the Dragonheart movies have an incredibly limited music budget, which forces McKenzie to write, arrange, and perform them all himself using his personal synth, keyboard, and sampler setup. To give him credit, McKenzie chooses to see the positive side of all this, saying that it gives him an opportunity to hone his programming skills, investigate new samples, and test himself to write the best music he can within these limits. And, of course, that is all true, but the truth of the matter is that McKenzie excels when he is in front of an orchestra, marshaling 100 or more musicians and singers, creating music in that way. His music just begs to be performed live, and as good as his samples are, nothing can ever re-create that visceral orchestral experience. I know it, and I’m sure he knows it too; so, with that caveat out of the way, what we are left with on Dragonheart Vengeance is a score which is beautifully composed, skillfully arranged, and filled with heart, but is held back by its electronic nature.

To maintain consistency with the other films in the series, McKenzie frequently uses the theme that Randy Edelman wrote for the original Dragonheart. That theme is one of the best things Edelman ever wrote – it was in every movie trailer in the late 1990s for a reason – and when it appears here, in cues like “Love Changes Everything,” “You’re Destined for Greatness,” “Great Love Surrounds What is Surrounding You,” “Keep Looking Up,” and the conclusive “Hope It All Works for Good,” it’s a superb nostalgic thrill. The theme remains as beautiful and epic and emotionally resonant as it always has, and revisiting it again some 24 years after it first appeared is a real joy. What’s really impressive about the theme here, though, is how McKenzie alters it. In “Love Changes Everything” it is intimate, but perhaps tinged with regret, and is arranged for strings and acoustic guitar. In “You’re Destined for Greatness” it is performed on soft flutes and underpinned by light percussion. In “Great Love Surrounds What is Surrounding You” it is anchored by a beautiful duet for cello and harp, and hints at sorrowful emotion.

As for the rest of the score, when Edelman’s theme is not present, McKenzie still impresses. A lot of the score actually has something of a world music feeling to it, mostly because of the numerous intricate and multi-faceted percussion samples that he uses throughout the work. This is counterbalanced by some beautiful, and occasionally quite magical textures for woodwinds and high, inviting strings that seems to illustrate both Lukas’s righteous crusade, and the relationship he develops with Siveth the Ice-Dragon as the story progresses. There are at least three new themes that weave in and out of the score, one of which has some superficial similarities to James Horner’s Legends of the Fall, and another of which has some echoes of Trevor Jones’s Last of the Mohicans. They are perfect ‘landscape’ themes, full of expansive gestures that conjure up images of epic vistas and grand adventure.

The opening cue, “Hold On To Hope in the Dark Times,” introduces two of these themes: the first is soft and gentle, and a touch mystical, with harps and a soft choir offset by light, wintry-sounding textures. The woodwind-led theme that emerges at 0:50 has vague hints of folk music, as well as moments of playfulness, while the darker theme that is first heard at 2:05 features heavier percussion, prominent brass, and has a sense of emotional depth emanating from the cellos. Further prominent statements of these themes come later in “Look At What You Have Left and Not at What You’ve Lost,” which uses woodwinds and recorders underpinned with dramatic strings to create a sense of urgency, and “Great Love Surrounds What is Surrounding You,’ which again leans heavily on the cello.

The action music, as heard in cues like “Never Never Ever Give Up,” “Snake Battle,” “Risking Life For Something Bigger Than Yourself,” and especially “Siveth’s Cat Mouse and Dragon Plan,” makes excellent use of a rousing brass anthem, full of heraldic fanfares and important-sounding percussion, before making a sideways move into dissonant intensity. The “Snake Battle” is notable for its clattering percussion, surging strings, and staccato brass, while that latter cue is especially excellent in the way it brings the new main theme into the action writing, linking Lukas’s quest and his relationship with Siveth to the battles directly.

There are moments of romance and peacefulness too. “You Make Me Feel Magical Inside” has a mystical, elemental tone featuring some lovely varied orchestral textures. “Pledged to Peace” is solemn and reverential, and brings in a sampled choir towards the end of the cue for added potency. “Trying to Kiss You” is the most romantic of the lot, blending woodwinds and acoustic guitars with glittery chimes for a touch of effervescence.

The conclusive pair, “Keep Looking Up” and “Hope It All Works for Good,” are heavy on the Dragonheart theme, as I mentioned before, with the latter of these two cues offering the most rousing, poignant, and fleshed out statement in the entire score. There are also numerous statements of each of the new themes in this 9-minute finale, which play against the main Dragonheart theme with dexterity, sometimes offering a subtle counterpoint, and sometimes rising to make their own voices heard. The emotional content in this finale is also exceptionally high, which is something at which McKenzie has always excelled.

The Dragonheart scores have always been more about depicting emotions, relationships, and the magical essence at the core of the dragons, than they have been about bombastic action, and Dragonheart Vengeance is very much cut from the same cloth. As such, anyone expecting this score to be wall-to-wall battle music will be disappointed in the fact that much of the score is quite intimate and a little understated. Personally, however, I found much to admire here; the new themes are all lovely, the interpolation of Edelman’s original theme is tasteful and appropriate, the folk and world music influences give it an unexpected tone, and the action music – when it does appear – has a vigorous intensity… but I just wish that there had been the budget for an orchestra. The compositional standard is high, the emotional content is superb, and the ideas are all there – but in the end too much of it feels like a very well-produced demo rather than a fully fleshed out final product. Despite all Mark McKenzie’s best efforts, ultimately it is the limited scope of the electronic samples that prevents Dragonheart Vengeance from taking off as much as it should.

Buy the Dragonheart Vengeance soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Hold On To Hope in the Dark Times (3:21)
  • Love Changes Everything (2:19)
  • Never Never Ever Give Up (1:45)
  • You’re Destined for Greatness (2:24)
  • You Make Me Feel Magical Inside (1:42)
  • Look At What You Have Left and Not at What You’ve Lost (2:45)
  • Pledged to Peace (1:20)
  • Great Love Surrounds What is Surrounding You (2:05)
  • Snake Battle (2:55)
  • Self Control Makes You Stronger (4:48)
  • Trying to Kiss You (1:38)
  • Look Behind You! (1:22)
  • Risking Life For Something Bigger Than Yourself (2:07)
  • Siveth’s Cat Mouse and Dragon Plan (4:59)
  • Keep Looking Up (2:29)
  • Hope It All Works for Good (9:10)

Running Time: 47 minutes 08 seconds

Intrada INT-7159 (2020)

Music composed, arranged, and performed by Mark McKenzie. Original ‘Dragonheart’ theme by Randy Edelman. Recorded and mixed by Mark McKenzie. Album produced by Mark McKenzie, Douglass Fake and Roger Feigelson.

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