Judge Ike Oden's personal crusade is in the name of Last Action Hero. It's a good movie! Why won't you believe me!?
In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king.
Madd Mikkelson (Casino Royale) is One Eye, a barbarian prisoner forced to fight for his Pagan captors' entertainment. He escapes along with a young boy (Maarten Stevenson, Blessed), and the two join up with a group of Viking warriors headed off to fight the Crusades. The expedition takes a disastrous turn, and the group finds that they are drifting onto a freshwater lake bordering the New World. Isolated on foreign land, the Vikings begin to turn on each other as the natives pick them off one by one. With their numbers dwindling, One Eye is forced to protect the young boy at all costs.
Valhalla Rising is to period war films what The Proposition is to American Westerns: it is a dark, bleak, cinematic punch in the stomach to Viking and Crusade themed films. It's as if David Fincher and Werner Herzog decided to make The 13th Warrior or The New World.
I haven't seen any of Nicholas Winding Refn's films (among them Bronson and the Pusher trilogy), but after watching Valhalla Rising I'm certainly going to queue up his back catalog in my viewing future. Refn's directorial style is sparse and experimental, stripping Valhalla Rising to the narrative's bone. This isn't what you'd imagine from a Viking war film. It's as un-Hollywood as a film can be, free from the trappings of giant castle sets and one-thousand men battles, instead focusing on the protagonist's journey from slavery into the heart of hell.
Madd Mikkelson's One Eye is simultaneously a Christ and anti-Christ messiah in the film. He is a feral animal, a mute beast who expresses himself most clearly with bone crunching violence. He communicates through his young boy sidekick without ever speaking himself, is prone to blood-soaked psychic visions of the future, and walks through the film fearlessly as a man prepared for doom. In a word: badass.
Through his relationship with The Boy (a soothsayer), One Eye commands his quest with the hand of God—angry, wrathful, and grossly protective of the innocent. He's the ultimate Alpha male, a disfigured creature with a tenuous grasp of humanity that separates him from the monstrous Pagans and Christians. Mikkelson commands the film in a perfect performance, conjuring doom with a glance of his eye and a slash of his axe. Maarten Stevenson is his equal on every level. The Boy is crafted as One Eye's foil: pure hope and innocence in a world ruled by the madness of fanatical practitioners of Pagan and Christian religions.
The supporting characters and their players are memorable only as archetypes—the blindly fanatical Viking Leader, the nihilistic Pagan Leader, the Crusader that doubts his faith, etc. Refn wisely wraps these characters purely around Mikkelson's apocalyptic performance, never catering to character moments or quirks common to the supporting fodder of "Men on a Mission" type films. They handle little dialogue (according to IMDb, there is less than 120 lines in the whole movie) and fall like stones as One Eye and the elements dictate.
It should be reiterated that, despite sporting an action-hero like protagonist and its fair share of fight scenes, Valhalla Rising isn't a traditional action film. Really, it's barely an action film, positing more existential interests than slam-bang action. It is the sort of film your average Joe or Jane Six Pack picks up at his video store after a long week and finding The Expendables out of stock. He or she returns it to the store counter the following Sunday, complaining that there's barely any dialogue in it, most of it is just people walking, there's no story—all because Valhalla Rising is an experimental film at its core, with action taking a backseat to the film's preoccupation with atheism and religious extremism.
It is highly successful as a one-of-a-kind, freak-out version of its subgenre that I can't recommend enough. It's engrossing, entertaining, thoughtful, touching and more than a little trippy—the sort of film that makes me love films all the more.
The DVD itself sports a beautiful transfer with slight grain and brief bouts of pixel clustering, while the 5.1 audio mix channels a paranoid rock soundtrack and incredibly sharp sound effects to couch jumping results. Extras are nil, with only a trailer to show for its efforts.
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