Kull reigns. Kull rules. Kull rocks.
Kull of Atlantis, King of Valusia, makes his way from the mind of the great Robert E. Howard to the big screen, following in the steps of Conan before him. Or trying to, at any rate.
Facts of the Case
The barbarian warrior Kull fights to prove himself worthy of membership in one of the King's elite regiments, commanded by General Taligaro. A messenger comes from the palace—the king is slaughtering his heirs! For reasons unknown, Kull tags along to the palace. He ends up killing King Borna, who, again for reasons unknown, grants the crown to Kull with his dying breath. This displeases almost everyone, especially Taligaro, who claims that he would have been next in line to the throne (presumably after taking into account the carnage in the palace). Still, the ancient law of succession is unbreakable, and Kull is crowned king. Among his first duties is to be introduced to Borna's—now his—harem. There he meets Zareta, who in addition to her harem duties is a fortune teller, skilled in the use of a sort of tarot deck. She foretells the destiny of his kingdom (and the plot of the movie, so pay attention), which will apparently involve a tiger, a quest, and a kiss. Kull also soon meets Ascalante, a priest whom he frees from bondage.
Of course, every good king needs a queen, and soon Kull is wed to Akivasha, a ravishing redheaded beauty. Well, redheaded in any case. One small problem, as Kull soon finds out, is that Akivasha is actually a 3000-year-old demon priestess, resurrected by Taligaro and his henchmen in a plot to seize power from Kull. Why they need a demon priestess to do this is not entirely clear. It turns out that Akivasha is a priestess of Acheron, who was defeated by the great god Valka in time immemorial. Valka left one trace of Acheron; a column of his evil flame burns day and night high above Valusia as a warning to all the people, a reminder of godless times. Akivasha plans to open the doors of Hell itself and allow Acheron to reign once more.
Soon Kull discovers Akivasha's treachery. Time is short, for she has set forces in motion that will free Acheron during an approaching solar eclipse (naturally). He has only one chance to stop her: he must sail north, find the Isle of Ice, capture the Breath of Valka, and extinguish Acheron's flame once and for all. Only then will Akivasha be defeated. Taligaro, who by now realizes that Akivasha has betrayed him, figures this out as well and the race is on.
When I saw the trailers for Kull the Conqueror prior to its theatrical release, I was intrigued. Here was another of Robert E. Howard's colorful characters, played by my fellow Minnesotan Kevin Sorbo ("Hercules—the Legendary Journeys," Slaughter of the Innocents), no less. And, being a fan of the "sword-and-sorcery" genre, I know that good fantasy movies are few and far between. As it turns out, there are some decent ideas in this movie. Many of them have roots in ancient mythology. For example, the battle between elemental forces of fire and ice is found frequently in the northern mythologies from which Howard drew so heavily in creating his fantasy worlds. Also, the dichotomy between Akivasha (Tia Carrere—Wayne's World, True Lies, Jury Duty) and Zareta (Karina Lombard—Legends of the Fall, The Firm, Wide Sargasso Sea) represents two of the most common mythic archetypes of women; the evil destroyer and the benevolent advisor. (I'm sure you could find a lot of Freudian symbolism as well in their duality but I'm not going to go there.) Both have supernatural connections, another common feature of women in myth. Beyond that, the accidental king, the palace intrigue, and an antagonist who needs to defeat Kull's great enemy for his own ends all have a lot of potential to create an interesting story.
I would be remiss if I did not note the brief appearance of action flick mainstay Sven-Ole Thorsen (Conan the Barbarian, The Running Man, Gladiator) as King Borna. I always get a kick out of him, but I'm not sure why.
Kull the Conqueror is brought to us by Universal in a stunning 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer. It looks wonderful. Colors are fantastic and true to life. Every frame is razor-sharp, even in dark, shadowy scenes. The picture is immaculate, with no discernible flaws, grain, blips, or scratches. It is one of the best looking transfers I have ever seen. This is due in large part to the raw material they had to work with, which features some outstanding cinematography by Rodney Charters. The lighting in every scene is perfect, and uses a wide range of ambient light sources from bonfires to torches to moonlight, often more than one at the same time. These are hard light sources to use well in filming, and hard to get right in the digital format, so kudos are appropriate all around.
The sound is Dolby Digital 5.1. It is very good, and makes excellent use of the rear channels for all manner of sounds, including battle effects and music.
Extra content is fairly standard and consists of the usual text screens of production notes and cast/crew bios as well as a theatrical trailer presented in its original aspect ratio. The theatrical trailer contains one interesting looking scene featuring Akivasha and a large snake, which seems to have wound up on the cutting room floor. Other than that the trailer is wholly unremarkable, but at least it does not give the plot away. The bios and production notes are well done and more informative than most; I was amazed at how many pages of notes were provided. Overall, the menus and info screens are nicely done and easy to navigate.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
All of the ingredients are present to tell a great adventure story. Unfortunately, the whole is considerably less than the sum of its parts. Part of this is due to some gaping holes in the plot. Part of it is due to clichéd, uninspired dialogue. This script was at least a draft or two away from being a good final product.
A large measure of the blame for Kull's failure needs to be placed on the director, John Nicolella. Better known as the creator/producer of such television programs as "Miami Vice" and "Nash Bridges," Kull the Conqueror marks Nicolella's feature-film directing debut. His direction is competent throughout but totally lacking in imagination, resulting in a movie that looks great but feels like assembled stock footage.
However, whatever deficiencies there may have been in direction pale beside the lamentable acting performances by almost the entire cast. Tia Carerre's fifteen minutes of fame have been over for more than half a decade, and with good reason. She is probably still spitting out splinters from all the scenery she chewed in this one. Her lines as written were bad enough, but she makes them all her own in a truly awful spectacle. In one memorable scene she is made to say a line lifted directly from Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back, and she delivers it with all the gusto of a sixth grader doing his best James Earl Jones impression.
Another victim of the script is Karina Lombard. She is a fitting addition to this genre, as her English appears to be about as good as Ahnuld's was when he started out. Thomas Ian Griffith (Karate Kid III, Behind Enemy Lines, Excessive Force) is passable as Taligaro, but does not make much of an impression. Litefoot (The Indian in the Cupboard, Mortal Kombat II) is an exception, as he gives a good performance as Ascalante the priest. Harvey Fierstein also appears in this movie, and well, let's just say that a little of him goes a very long way with me. So much so that the ten or fifteen minutes he was onscreen seemed like an eternity.
Which brings me to Kull himself, Kevin Sorbo. Sorbo is not a bad actor, just thoroughly miscast. He is too likeable, too Midwestern, and too smart for this movie. Perhaps part of this comes from his experience as Hercules; a large part of the charm of that series is the winking acknowledgement to the audience that we are all smarter than the material. The danger in this is crossing the fine line into campiness. Sorbo doesn't cross that line, but you can tell that he is not really convinced of anything his character says or does. He does have a good physical presence and voice, and is pretty good with a sword or an axe.
An important part of a movie like this is the action scenes, and Kull has plenty of them. They vary in quality from very good to lame. One of the most climactic melees takes place in an ice cave, and the entire scene looks like blocking practice rather than an actual take. In these fights the villains always adhere to Ebert's cliché about always attacking one at a time. Another Ebert cliché that you will see in the film is the dead guy who isn't really dead. This appears not once but twice.
Special effects quality varies widely. There are some matte paintings that will take your breath away, and there is some CGI that will take your lunch away. You have to feel a little sorry for Kull, for we find out his god is a big head in an ice cave, and bears a distinct resemblance to the talking statue of Paul Bunyan my sister and I used to visit as kids.
One last item to mention is Joel Goldsmith's score. It makes very interesting use of orchestral instrumentation alongside Metallica-style heavy metal guitars. While this is an interesting experiment and I might like to hear more of it, it doesn't work in the movie. There is something just plain wrong about ancient swordfights set to heavy metal music.
Kull the Conqueror started out as a proposed script for a third Conan picture, and genre fans should all be thankful that Ahnuld had the good sense to be unavailable. While it is far from the worst sword-and-sorcery movie ever made, it leaves a lot to be desired. I will admit that I enjoyed parts of it, so long as Carerre and Fierstein were not onscreen, but there is not much meat here. Genre fans who are tired of watching their VHS tapes of that old David Carradine flick may want to rent it, but the repeatability factor is pretty low, so I can't imagine buying it.
The movie is convicted of being an unworthy pretender to the throne. Universal is acquitted on every count, and commended for excellent treatment of a flick that deserved a lot worse.
We stand adjourned.
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