Lords with Swords

Weekend just gone, TAG had Wimbledon so I got to pick a bushel of DVDs featuring men with big choppers (innuendo intended), though actually, when I think about it, she picked one of them.

Last Knights (2015)

There’s a fantasy feel to this one, as it’s set in a world where a cosmopolitan empire exists, one that never existed in reality despite the best efforts of Charlemagne and his ilk. It’s also based on the Japanese legend of the forty seven ronin, hence the merging of occidental and oriental military traditions. Lord Bartok, played by a suitably noble sounding Morgan Freeman, loses his life when he stands on his honour rather than give a bribe to the Emperor’s favourite minister (his honour however appears indifferent to the fact that hundreds if not thousands of the people who live under his rule will also suffer for his decision, by which I mean that Lord B is a self-indulgent nitwit regardless of how well he rolls his Rs). Commander Raiden (Clive Owen mailing it in) has to pretend to fall into the bottom of a wine bottle, while the rest of the knights he led seek other gainful employment. And then, when the enemy has been lulled into a false sense of security, they launch an all-out attack on the stronghold of the minister to restore Bartok honour. I really didn’t think much of this. The story is totally predictable, with absolutely no surprises or attempts to deviate from the standard formula for this type of thing. While the end battle is mostly entertaining, albeit still running pretty much to form, the rest of the movie drags horrendously – Clive Owen pretending to be a drunk ad nauseam is not exactly riveting cinema. The two leads are trapped in roles that require little from them, with absolutely nothing memorable about their performances. The bad guys play out a little better, with kudos to Aksel Hennie as Minister Geza Mott and the phlegmatic Tsuyoshi Ihara as his sword arm Ito, but overall it feels like a dismal failure to reproduce the complexity and excitement and visual flair of films like Curse of the Golden Flower.

Outcast (2014)

This was marginally better, though on another viewing it could possibly prove that little bit worse (it’s a question of degrees of indifference). It opens with scenes of battle in the Middle East and Nicolas Cage reprising his Seasons of the Witch role as a Crusader who gets fed up with slaughtering women and children. Then we move to the Far East (China, specifically), where the Emperor decides that his youngest son is to succeed him, a decision that doesn’t sit well with his older brother, a warrior who is capable of anything. With the Emperor dead, the young prince and his sister go on the run, and their only hope is the drunken former Crusader Jacob (Hayden Christensen), who sees a chance to make amends for the sins of his past by helping them. The trail leads them to the cave stronghold of bandit leader the White Ghost (Cage), who was Jacob’s mentor back in the bad old days, and with the evil prince and his army hot on their tail the scene is set for a battle royal. Again, this is all drearily predictable, even down to the final sword fight between two champions, with echoes of Gladiator in the proceedings. It would be nice if just once, the passed over prince turned out to be the better choice and the young prince a spoiled brat, but of course that will never happen in Hollywood land even if it appears to be an immutable law in reality. The two leads don’t get to do much. Cage has to look tired and battle weary, and succeeds admirably on both counts, only livening up when he is wielding his weapon. Christensen excels in the role of a killing machine, failing only when a little more is required of him, such as emotion. Actually, that’s harsh, as he does come over rather well at times, especially when bonding with the young prince, and it’s hardly his fault that the script doesn’t ask anything more of him. The character interactions all seem contrived and clichéd (drunk warrior who sobers up for shot at redemption, princess who falls in love with a soldier, the commoner who tells the royals how it is, etc.), and the fight scenes were the most rewarding parts of what little the film had to offer. Fortunately there were rather more of them than in Last Knights. Regardless, this film was still a hundred or so minutes of my life I could have put to better use. (In parenthesis, I note that in both films the fight scenes were rather sanitised, with blurry camera movement and little of the actual bloodshed that you would expect to see given the number of people who are killed. Both films are 15 rated, and I guess they couldn’t have too much of the red stuff spilled over their faux battle spectacles.)

Black Death (2010)

More horror film than sword and sandal, this is far more rewarding than the other two productions, in many ways like a medieval version of The Wicker Man. Sean Bean plays Ulric, the leader of a troop of mercenaries sent by the bishop to seek out a remote marsh village where it is rumoured that the plague doesn’t take root thanks to the presence of a necromancer. Eddie Redmayne is Osmund, a young monk who is torn between his faith and love for the fair Averill; he is coopted to lead Ulric to the village. They find the village, only to be drugged and imprisoned by its people who are led by the other worldly Lavina (Carice van Houten). There follow various trials of faith, with the mercenaries offered their lives in exchange for renouncing God and Osmund seeing his beloved Averill raised from the dead. But it’s all smoke and mirrors, with the truth eventually revealed, only for Osmund to realise that he has made a terrible mistake. Done on a much smaller scale than the other two films, yet this manages to create a far more convincing depiction of the Middle Ages, with the dirt and the disease brought to life on the screen, and the desperation that leads men to grasp at any spiritual straw in the search for solid ground on which to build their lives. The threat of violence is always implicit in the material, but there are actually very few scenes of physical conflict. The main interest of the film lies in the clash of ideas, the paganism of the villagers in collision with the Christian faith of Ulric and his men. The latter, with their willingness to torture and kill in the name of God, are initially the less appealing, but they earn our respect through their willingness to sacrifice everything for a cause, proving far more fully rounded than the swords for hire we were led to expect. Conversely, though the village at first appears to be a utopian community, we soon learn that Lavina and her followers are no better, are equally capable of terrible acts and showing no mercy in the furtherance of their cause. Osmund is the epitome of this struggle, a tormented soul ultimately choosing to embrace a narrow creed in lieu of dealing with his own shortcomings, to blame others rather than take responsibility for what he has done. It’s not exactly a masterpiece, but it is an intelligent and innovative attempt to tackle universal themes, while adding horror genre bells and whistles to the mix for entertainment’s sake. And of course one can, as does Osmund it appears, accept it all at face value, believe that Lavina was a necromancer and her deeds the product of evil. I liked this film quite a bit, and of the three it was easily the most worthwhile.

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