Tuesday, January 8, 2008

4 Color Cinema

Kull The ConquerorKull The Conquerer

Okay. You got me. I confess. I'm probably stretching it a bit here. Kull is a character more identified with his pulpy origins than with the 4 Color world. But hey, Marvel has put out more than one attempt at Robert E. Howard's lesser-known barbarian hero over the years, so I think this qualifies. And since this is my blog, so it has been written, and so it shall come to pass! (Alternately, "By this blog, I rule!")

Our story opens in the ancient kingdom of Valusia, where the barbarian, Kull of Atlantis (Kevin Sorbo!), fights for his life against a band of soldiers. The barechested strongman does well with his axe, but is less successful with a sword when he does battle with the captain, Taligaro. It seems that this battle is a tryout for a place in the royal guard -- a tryout which Kull fails not for his martial skills, but for not being of noble blood. All this is interrupted when a messenger informs Taligaro that his father, King Borna, has gone mad, and begun slaying his heirs! Hurrying back to the castle, Kull is caught up in the palace intrigue, and when he stops Borna's rampage, he finds himself crowned as the new King of Valusia!

Of course, heavy is the head which wears the crown, as Kull finds himself stymied in court, where he is unable to rescind the law allowing free Valusians to own slaves, as well as his private chambers, as the seer Zareta treats his advances like a complying concubine and nothing more. Nor is public much better, as Taligaro, his cousin Ducalon, and the scarred wizard Enaros all conspire against him. Taligaro and Ducalon both want the crown, but Enaros is planning to resurrect the ancient sorceress Akivasha, who's return will plunge Valusia into darkness. Needless to say, he's successful, and the stunning Akivasha soon has Kull under her spell, and the kingdom in her palm. Can the barbarian, along with Zareta and the priest Ascalante retrieve the only power which can defeat the evil Queen and restore peace to the folk of Valusia?

Kull does it the Marvel way!  KULL THE CONQUEROR v.2:no.1Now, I enjoy a good sword and sorcery film. As a young kid, my brother and I would often watch Conan The Destroyer (the mirror monster rocks), and live out our muscle-bound dreams with He-Man and other Masters of the Universe toys. The more adventerous, and less mature, nature of Destroyer and MOTU was designed to be kid-friendly, and it was glad gobbled up by the both of us, as well as lots of others our age. Later developments in the genre would push towards more of a high-camp style (as opposed to the only moderate levels of camp in Arnie's sequel), and then eventually return to the substantially more earnest roots established with Conan The Barbarian. (Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy is not strictly sword and sorcery, but just as Howard and Tolkien tapped into the same essential aspects of Middle-Aged myth and legend, so too do their respective adapted works flow along similar paths). You had your choice of supremely silly, or supremely serious.

Kull ties into the same spirit as Destroyer, insofar as while the story is treated straight, there are elements of levity and camp which lighten things up and make it more of a family-friendly affair. It doesn't weigh the proceedings down with the massive importance of everything, but neither does it rely on lame punchlines and other unwelcome elements which had become more commonplace in the wake of "Hercules, The Legendary Journeys," which of course also starred Sorbo. Yes, there is some humor -- at one point Kull is urinated on by a camel -- but it's not so absurd as to take one out of the story. Speaking of which, the tale itself is pretty straightforward barbarian stuff, with magic, monsters, dungeons, battles, and gods liberally distirbuted. The design is nice -- not too ostentatious but not too muted either. It's not exactly Howard, but considering how far the material could have strayed, it's pretty close. Elements are borrowed from "By This Axe I Rule," as well as several other Kull and Conan tales, and it rings pretty true to those not intimately familiar with the source material. This is probably the best way to tell a Kull story -- begining with gaining the crown and thus being unfamiliar with what it means to rule, as opposed to the monarch who is already sitting on the throne.

Sorbo is game as the oft-barechested hero. He'll never be considering a "real" actor, but he does this sort of fantasy work very well, bringing the right gravitas to the role when necessary and certainly looking the part. (My wife was very appreciative of him.) It's disappointing that we never saw him take up the axe again. Tia Carrere's casting betrays the film's timeframe if nothing else, but she is appropriately vamp-y as the resurrected sorceress Akivasha. She has an exotic look which fits well into the Hyborean setting. Ditto for Karina Lombard, who plays Zareta. I've never seen her in anything else, although apparently she has done some TV work recently, including "The L Word" and "The 4400." As Zareta, she is strong and smart without falling too much into the maiden in need of rescue stereotype. Her first few scenes involve her standing up to Kull, and actually making it stick, which used to be something of a rarity. Litefoot, playing Ascalante is given precious little to do, because he is an interesting choice for the pacifistic priest. Rounding out the cast include the suitably menacing Thomas Ian Griffith as Taligaro, a weird Edward Tudor-Pale as Enaros, and a bizarely out of place Harvey Fierstein as Juba, an evidently gay pirate lord and merchant (seriously, at one point he says "You know I can't stand the smell of fish!").

By This Axe I Rule!  KULL THE DESTROYER #11That last bit also seems to carry over onto the film's advertising campaign, which I personally remember being really, really unappealing. Playing on the popularity of Sorbo's "Hercules" series, the trailer for the film uses the "comedy" voice over guy and is jokey beyond belief. It leads the viewer to think that it's just a big screen version of the post-modernist barbarian gig from that show, even though the comedy is actually really limited. I'm of the opinion that this had a lot to do with the film's failure, since while that kind of goofiness has a certain charm on television, most people don't want to pay money for it. Had Kull the Conqueror been advertised as a straight adventure movie which just so happened to star that "Hercules" guy, maybe the film wouldn't be as obscure as it is today.

In any event, Kull the Conqueror is definitely worth a rent if you enjoy this sort of Big Dumb Sword and Sorcery type of movie. It's got a lot of heart and a good cast, and is certainly highly entertaining for it's entire running length. It's not going to knock off either film starring that other barbarian, but the King certainly does rule, to borrow a phrase.


Diabolu Frank said...

I never warmed to the "Conan" films, though I dug the early comics. I was more of a Beastmaster/Sword and the Sorcerer/Fire & Ice kinda kid. Just sayin'...

Luke said...

Fire And Ice is awesome! One of my favorite animated films of all time.

Diabolu Frank said...

Yeah, we saw that film in the theater around 1984, based solely on a black & white newspaper ad. We were shocked that it was a cartoon, and thought we'd been scammed, but it didn't take long to prove itself to be bad ass. All those years glorious, fluid Rotoscoping was stigmatized by cell animators, and now we're all living in CGI mo-cap zombie hell.