Tuesday, September 15, 2009

In Search of the Skull-Crushing Good Times

Finding movies about ancient-world warriors who cleave skulls with battle axes is not a difficult quest. Picking out the good ones is. For the viewer with a desire for quality Medieval/Viking/primitive ass-kickery, the search for satisfaction never ends.

As enjoyable as Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy was, years of crap fantasy films, manic fan rapture and the work of George Lucas put a screen between our eyes and those films. At best LotR reminds us that Jackson did right by Tolkien, at worst the trilogy prompts us in our more cynical moods to describe it as the over-inflated story of two guys trying to return some jewelry.

Either way, the LotR films inspired no repeat viewings. Whereas any of the sword & sandals flicks featuring Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion animated creatures keeps us returning despite the fact that the target demographic was 7-to-14-year old boys.

Nostalgia plays a large role in that, for sure. But something about The 7th Voyage of Sinbad or Jason and the Argonauts taps into the pure joy of watching mythical archetypes clobber each other with weapons, magic and their fists.

Kung-fu movies can deliver the same thrills, but for anybody who sank their brain deep into Greek and Norse mythology or non-superhero adventure comics, there's no substitute for the battle-hardened brute of the Western world diving headfirst into the red mists of war, blade in hand and strict moral code intact. No modern person wants to live in that realm, but the stories' clear division between right and wrong has its appeal.

Past cinematic offerings in this pulp genre are patchy. The Italian Hercules flicks can be campy fun. But the Schwarzenegger Conan films fell flat -- despite John Milius' direction of the first film -- largely because Schwarzenegger is never anyone onscreen but himself. For every inventive outing such as Excalibur there's a not-quite-there entry such as King Arthur; for every Flesh + Blood, a Gladiator.

And the straight-to-DVD/made-for-basic-cable landscape offers a bounty of passable dreck that, we confess, may pull us in on a hangover Sunday afternoon. (We don't watch those movies because they're worth our attention, we watch them because nobody has to know about it when we're done.)

Thanks to CGI and a summer blockbuster season that lasts six months, Hollywood's launched a few more big-budget swashbucklers our way in the past decade, with expectedly mixed results erring on the side of crap. But two forthcoming releases could be worth a look.

Michael J. Bennett, who helmed two unusual, battle-themed horror films -- Deathwatch and Wilderness -- has directed the first big-screen adaptation of Solomon Kane.

Kane, a creation of Robert E. Howard (who also brought Conan the Barbarian to life), is a 16th century tough who packs two flint-lock pistols and various sharp items because dang it if the Colonial world isn't lousy with Satan's minions. James Purefoy, unknown to the average U.S. viewer, plays the lead. Check the trailer here.

From the less popcorn-friendly side comes Valhalla Rising, a film about a slave named One Eye who escapes his Viking captors only to run into some Crusaders and an unusually thick fog.

Directed by Nicholas Winding Refn, who delivered the goods with the punishing Pusher trilogy brings the bleak reality of life in 1000 A.D. Northern Europe to the screen here. The role of One Eye is played by a Danish actor named Mads Mikkelsen. (Everytime we say his name aloud, various Slayer riffs play. It's the damnedest thing.)

Here's the Valhalla trailer:

[Courtesy Vertigo Films UK]

Having not seen either of these, The Typing Monkey can't vouch for the level of quality. So don't send us angry e-mail if they're trash because we'll be just as disappointed as you.