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SPECIAL EFFECTS, CONNERY SAVE `DRAGONHEART' FROM THIN PLOT

DRAGONHEART - * * 1/2 - Dennis Quaid, David Thewlis, Julie Christie, Pete Postlethwaite, and featuring the voice of Sean Connery; rated PG-13 (violence, gore, vulgarity); Century 9 Theaters; Cineplex Odeon Crossroads Plaza, Holladay Center, Midvalley, South Towne Center and Trolley North Cinemas; Reel Theaters; Valley Vu Drive-in, with "Sabrina."

Give the writers and producers of "Dragonheart" credit. They've managed to give the "buddy movie" genre a twist with this fantasy, even if the end result is a little half-hearted.

Spectacular special effects and a similarly spectacular performance from Sean Connery save the film from being a bomb, but you can add "Dragonheart" to an ever-increasing list of movies this year that stress special effects over solid storytelling (think "Mission: Impossible" and "Twister").

The film takes place in 10th-century England, where the despotic King Freyne has been terrorizing villages. Bowen (Dennis Quaid), a knight dedicated to the ways of "The Old Code," has been training the king's son, Prince Einon, whom he hopes will avoid the errors of his father.

Nothing goes as planned, though, as the king is slain by vengeful peasants. And when the young prince tries to wrest the crown from his dying father, he is also mortally wounded.

Accompanied by the boy's desperate mother, Queen Aislinn (Julie Christie), Bowen takes Einon to a dark cave. There, his wounds are healed by a mystical dragon, who literally gives half his heart to the boy, as the lad swears to rule the kingdom with mercy and to follow "The Old Code."

But Einon (David Thewlis) reneges on his promises to both the dragon and Bowen, and becomes every bit as bloodthirsty as his father. Meanwhile, Bowen, believing the creature's heart has poisoned his former pupil, seeks vengeance on the dragon and vows to exterminate him and his kind.

Eventually, he meets an unslayable dragon, Draco (whose voice is supplied by Connery), and the two become friends. Of course, it turns out Draco is the dragon who saved Einon's life, but by then Bowen has realized Einon's evil is his own doing, and they vow to aid a village of freedom fighters.

If the film's plot sounds convoluted, that's because it is. Screenwriters Charles Edward Pogue and Patrick Read Johnson's characters change their minds as often as Quaid does his accent. Fortunately, "Dragonheart" does have a sense of humor, though. One particularly good scene shows Bowen and Draco running a dragon-protection scam in nearby villages, a tip of the hat to the relationship between Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." Pete Postlethwaite also injects some much-needed laughs as a priest-minstrel following Bowen on his dragon-slaying quests.

The writers do stoop to some cheap humor, unfortunately, some of it mined from Draco's bodily functions, like sneezing. Yuck!

Also, the movie's setup takes much more time to unfold than it does to come to its skimpy conclusion, which takes a weird mystical turn, presumably to appease younger audiences who might not like the more obvious bittersweet turn.

That may not matter to some audiences, though, because the computer-graphic effects involving the dragons are superb, especially the sequences where Draco swims under water and where he bursts out of a waterfall.

The Tippett Studios animators (who also did the "Jurassic Park" dinosaurs) studied Connery's facial expressions before bringing the character to life. The dragon, which looks like a cross between a horned lizard and a rattlesnake, may scare some of the younger audience-members, though, and some of the violent swordplay is surprisingly graphic.

Despite the effects, what really brings Draco and the movie to life is Connery's wonderful vocal performance, which stands out over the other performances as much as the dragon does the human characters. (Christie, in particular, is wasted in an undeveloped role).

That's not necessarily a bad thing, though, since Quaid's growl sounds more like a pirate or Michael Keaton in "Beetlejuice" than a Celt or Scot.

"Dragonheart" is rated PG-13 for considerable violence, much of it involving swordplay, some gore (the heart transplant scene), vulgarity from the afore-mentioned sneezing scene and for the scariness of the dragons.