Set in the time of the Crusades, Nic Cage and Ron Perlman play macho warriors who have grown weary of bloody battles and particularly the senseless slaughter of innocents. However, they are called back into God’s service by the aging, plague-ridden Cardinal D'Ambroise (Christopher Lee), who will spare them execution for desertion if they agree to escort a supposed witch (Claire Foy) to a monastery where after a ritual is performed, the plague she has cursed on the land will be no more. They agree, but only if there is a fair trial afforded the accused. They are guided by a conman (Stephen Graham) who knows the way, and accompanied by a priest (Stephen Campbell Moore), a young wannabe knight (Robert Sheehan), and the Cardinal’s guard (Ulrich Thomsen). Along the way, the accused sorceress tries to strike up a conversation with Cage and tells him that the priest has tortured her. She seems innocent enough, but is she really wrongly accused or just a supernaturally gifted actress?
Not to be confused with the awful “Halloween III: Season of the Witch”, this 2011 Dominic Sena (“Kalifornia”, “Gone in 60 Seconds”) blend of medieval adventure and witchcraft/exorcism certainly gets a similar reception from critics. Hell, even the online critics and genre-specific critics aren’t fond of it. Practically no one seems to like it, and many freely mock it. You’re all missing out, I say, because by and large I found the film really interesting and certainly a lot better than I had anticipated.
Borrowing major plot elements from the SyFy flick “Dark Relic” (as well as themes from “The Exorcist” and “The Name of the Rose”), this is dark and dour, but I kinda liked it. Maybe there’s something to be said for expecting the worst, or maybe, this film just isn’t bad at all. I mean, the film deserves credit for at least being able to be taken seriously enough that I wasn’t making lame “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” gags about how to tell if someone is a witch. Well, most of the time anyway.
The film gets off to a lively but extremely uneven start, with a pretty amusing, over-the-top “Exorcist”-like opener. However, the stylised look was a little annoying. Yes, as usual, filters were getting in the way of my enjoyment of a film. The look is slightly less artificial-looking than “300”, but the urinary infection-coloured filter, followed by a dark blue one, really got on my nerves pretty quickly. The foggy scenery throughout did, however, look wonderful.
I also didn’t like that the open section of the film glossed over a series of battles in montage fashion. It looked interesting enough that I kinda wanted to see a complete battle. It also causes problems when after all these battles, Cage decides that he’s done with it, and yet we see no real reason why he’d feel that way, because he seemed until then, a pretty battle-happy kinda guy. I just didn’t see the transition.
However, these are such minor grievances that they ended up not changing my score of the film at all. The biggest stumbling block the film has to overcome is the casting of Nic Cage, and thankfully, the film does largely work in spite of him. For the most part Cage is one of those actors who is either insufferably unrestrained and self-consciously weird (“Peggy Sue Got Married”, “Vampire’s Kiss”, “Kiss of Death”, “Deadfall”), or somewhat boring (“Windtalkers”, “Rumble Fish”, “Guarding Tess”, “City of Angels”), and he’s pretty much the latter here. With his “Con Air” hairdo (making him look a bit like the lead singer of Nickelback) and barely any attempt at an accent outside of his usual one, Cage is poorly cast and unconvincing. He’s awful, to be honest. I’ve never been a Nic Cage fan, but I can see in theory why he was cast as a weary warrior, but he just seems wrong, not to mention in a foul mood. I just think Paul Bettany or Sean Bean would’ve been much better casting. Ron Perlman is better as his gung-ho, wise-cracking buddy, and is much better than he was in “In the Name of the King” at any rate. Stephen Campbell Moore, and Ulrich Thomsen also do solid work in lesser roles. In the pivotal and rather difficult role of the supposed witch, Claire Foy is impressive and well-cast. She is credible at every turn, and that’s extremely important for such an ambiguous character. Special mention must also be made of Christopher Lee in a small cameo as a plague-stricken Cardinal who sends Cage and Perlman on their journey. Beneath layers of impressive makeup, you won’t recognise Lee, save for his unmistakable voice. It’s a more vivid and lengthy cameo than he had in “The Golden Compass” at the very least.
There’s a terrific (if clichéd) scene involving a journey across the crappiest, most unsafe bridge of all-time that has plenty of tension. In fact, the film is quite atmospheric and creepy, if perhaps a bit unsubtle for some people’s tastes. I also thought Atli Orvarsson (“Babylon AD”) contributed a very effective music score. Personally, it bothered me a bit that the priest character takes so long to work out just what kind of supernatural/demonic entity we’re dealing with here, because it forces things to become a bit rushed towards the end. The FX are also somewhat variable to say the least.
Overall, I think this is underrated. The screenplay is by Bragi Schut, who I am certain has taken inspiration from the finale of “Dark Relic” at the very least. This is the better film, but still, I’ve gotta call the writer out on that.
Look, this isn’t especially memorable, but you’re all on crack. This is fine B-grade schlock, a little on the hokey side at times, and a bit too stylish for its own good, but if it weren’t for Nic Cage’s miscasting, this film would be a winner. As is, it’s never dull. Honestly, what more were people expecting?