BBC Video // 2006 // 138 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // December 6th, 2006
Sharpe brings the pain to India.
Sean Bean (Goldeneye) stars as Richard Sharpe, a bad-ass mofo from the days of the Napoleonic Wars. Based on the endless series of books from Bernard Cornwell, the adventures of Sharpe ran through 14 BBC-produced films, capped off by this 2006 production. For fans of the series, this is a righteous capper; for the uninitiated, track down all of these movies even if you have just a passing interest in historical fiction and dudes shooting each other in the heads with rifles and cannons.
Richard Sharpe, long since retired from the military and scratching out a living as a farmer, is called in by Lord Wellington (Hugh Fraser) for a mission into the heart of India. Turns out a Maharaja has been stirring up trouble, keeping the British forces busy putting down rebellions, and basically threatening England's interests. An operative had already been sent in, but upon his disappearance, Sharpe was called. He is of course resistant to another military operation, until he discovers who the operative was: his best friend Patrick Harper (Daragh O'Malley).
So it's back into the thick of it, as Sharpe slings his rifle and journeys to a land that has a nasty history for him: years ago, his battalion in India was slaughtered by a maniac British traitor called Dodd (Toby Stephens, Die Another Day), and as fate would have it, the same man commands the Maharaja's forces.
It will fall then to Sharpe and Harper to infiltrate the Maharaja's fortress and squelch Dodd's ambitions. But theirs isn't the only scheme in play, and the two friends will find their loyalties tested and their live endangered. Still, that's par for the course for these guys.
I discovered the Sharpe series over the summer, when my wife and I were hard up for some small-screen entertainment (Reading? Gardening? Bah!). Thankfully, BBC America marched to the rescue with its marathon airing of the Sharpe series that had been produced between 1993 and 1997. Each of the 14 installments clocked in at a feature-length two-hour runtime (with commercials), culminating with the premiere of Sharpe's Challenge. Sharpe bailed us out of the dog days of summer and I was immediately hooked.
These movies are grade-A alpha-male red meat. Sean Bean's Richard Sharpe is
a total stud -- a rude, crude, horny, prone-to-violence brawler with honor and
loyalty to spare. Once a bottom-dwelling foot solider, he was promoted through
the ranks when he saved Lord Wellington's life, and subsequent adventures
document his heroics, set against the backdrop of real historic events. Sharpe
is paired with his dedicated sidekick and premium French-eradicator Sergeant
Patrick Harper, the wry Irishman.
The majority of the BBC films revolve around Sharpe's participation in the Napoleonic Wars, but Sharpe's Challenge finds the rifle-slinging swashbuckler squared off with new foes: an ambitious Maharaja, some French mercenaries, and a ruthless British traitor. But his opponents aren't the only change for Sharpe: Sharpe's Challenge is, in all respects, "more" than its predecessors. More budget. More violence. More extras. More explosions. More beautiful vistas. More gorgeous women (though one can't disqualify Elizabeth Hurley's nipple-revealing turn in Sharpe's Enemy). More jowls. Yes, Bean and O'Malley do appear pretty long-in-the-tooth as compared to their more spry days in the earlier movies, but they still have it where it counts (i.e. talking trash and capping suckas). On the other side, Toby Stephens stands out as a noteworthy heavy, lethal, corrupt and whiny, just begging for some sweet comeuppance, which he gets in vintage Sharpe fashion. Karan Panthaky's Maharaja is forgettable, but Padma Lakshmi is captivating as the ambitious and smoking hot princess.
The film looks great, reflective of the larger budget director Tom Clegg (a Sharpe veteran) had to work with. He milks those dollars, too, staging large battle scenes, pyrotechnics and using some fantastic locations. At 138 minutes, Sharpe's Challenge is a haul, but thanks to sound pacing and the well-done action, it doesn't feel long. My big complaint: the film was originally chopped into two parts (aired in miniseries format), and that's still the case for the DVD release. Instead of merging the two sections into a cohesive whole, you get an awkward intermission, complete with closing credits, followed by a "previously on" preamble to Part 2. It's not enough to totally derail the flow, but it's jarring and, perhaps, lazy.
The film receives a beautiful transfer for its digital debut. Details are crisp and the colors are rich; this is a vibrant film and Clegg takes full advantage of the milieu. Though a 5.1 mix would have added a lot, the stereo track is adequate, given more legs with a Pro Logic II decoder. The standout for bonus features is the 45-minute making-of featurette, which is quite good, but the same special aired on BBC America. Deleted scenes and outtakes round out the batch.
I'm a big fan of the Sharpe series and though its protagonists now may not be as fit as they were back in the day, Sharpe's Challenge is my favorite of the bunch. Sweeping, well-acted and kick-ass, the film delivers all the swashbuckling snark that followers of the films (and books) have come to expect.
Not guilty, you bastard.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 138 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Behind-the-Scenes Feature
* Deleted Scenes