In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (2006) -***Ĺ
Iím beginning to suspect that Uwe Boll is kind of a genius. Not as a director, you understandó I have yet to see a single one of his films that wasnít pure shitó but rather as a businessman. See, heís figured out something that guys like him arenít supposed to know. Not only has he recognized that the economics of commercial film production are a system thatís designed to be gamed, but heís discovered how to manipulate it exactly like the major Hollywood studios do. Heís mastered the exploitation of European and Canadian tax incentives meant to prop up national film industries and to lure in producers from overseas. Heís similarly mastered the profit-hiding shell games that studios use to make blockbusters look like bombs when creditors, rights-holders, and tax collectors come calling. Heís learned which countriesí home video markets will pay good money for any old crap at all, so long as it looks like it was imported from the United States. And to top it all off, he displays a downright Nixonian appreciation for the positive power of negative publicity. Uwe Boll milks the cinemasochist market with a savvy that would do Roger Corman proud, and plays on his reputation as an egotistical jackanapes as adroitly as any pro-wrestling heel. Seriously, when was the last time you saw a publicity stunt to equal the time Boll challenged his critics to a boxing matchó cagily neglecting to mention that he was a prizewinning amateur pugilist in his youth, and that going a few rounds in the sparring ring was still one of his favorite ways to unwind?
I suspect all that stuff goes a long way toward explaining the extraordinary vitriol that has greeted Boll ever since House of the Dead brought him to the attention of audiences outside his native Germany. Weíre used to seeing Sony, Universal, and the rest of that lot laugh all the way to the bank at our expense, and theyíre usually at least a little bit circumspect about it. Boll, however, plays the Hollywood con openly and unapologeticallyó and his movies are so shamelessly bad that thereís no escaping the nature of the transaction when you watch them: youíre a rube, and Boll has just fleeced you with a smile on his face. Thatís why Iím so utterly fascinated by In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale. On the one hand, this was in many respects Bollís most convincing counterfeit yet of a big-time Hollywood production, with its $60-70 million budget and its cast of stars both rising and washed up. Yet at the same time, it was also the film that finally provoked audiences to stand up and proclaim, ďNo! This far, and no farther!Ē Bollís movies always performed poorly in theaters (indeed, some commentators go so far as to suggest that they were built to fail, maximizing their value as tax shelters for Bollís German investors), but In the Name of the King set a new standard with a worldwide gross that recouped just 15% of its reported production cost. Nobody wanted to see this stinker, not even the most uncritical fans of the video game from which it took half of its title and most of its plot. All those empty theater seats spoke louder than even the most generous tax write-off, and thus did In the Name of the King become the second pivotal movie of Uwe Bollís career. Never again would the Boll KG logo be seen on significant numbers of theater screens; itís been token theatrical releases at best ever since, and strict direct-to-video more often than not. Still, it was fun while it lasted, watching everybody lose their shit over this Teutonic weirdo and his apparent quest to make us all appreciate the relative merits of the 1990ís cycle of video game adaptations.
The pseudo-Medieval kingdom of Ehb is nearing an important point of transition. The current monarch, King Konreid (Burt Reynolds, of Deliverance and Universal Soldier II), is a just, benevolent, and wise enough ruler, but heís also an old man with neither wife nor children. He had both of those things once, mind you, but the queen is long dead and the crown prince is presumed so, lost when the latter was an infant in an ambush during less tranquil times. Thatís a real problem, because it leaves Duke Fallow (Matthew Lillard, from Scream and Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go to College), Konreidís nephew, as heir to the throne. Fallow is a lazy, cowardly, dissipated fool, certainly unready and perhaps inoperably unworthy to take his uncleís place, but he is nonetheless impatient to wear the crownó impatient enough, if it came to that, to conspire with the kingís enemies. Foremost among those is Gallian (Hannibalís Ray Liotta), formerly the court magician. Itís never a good idea to fire one of those, and now Gallian is stirring up all kinds of trouble in the interest of avenging himself upon Konreid and making himself de facto rule of Ehb. For example, Gallianís successor, Merick (John Rhys-Davies, from Sword of the Valiant and Endangered Species), has a daughter named Muriella (Leelee Sobieski, of Branded and The Wicker Man), who is extremely resentful of her dadís refusal to train her in the use of her innate magical gifts. Muriella has contented herself to some extent with studying under Konreidís captain of the guards (Brian White, from The Cabin in the Woods) instead, but Commander Tarish has never made any secret of the fact that women are not welcome in his regiment, no matter how skilled with a sword they become. Her ambitions thus doubly thwarted, Muriella has fallen into a secret, magically facilitated affair with Gallian, giving him effective insider access to the royal castle. Meanwhile, the scheming wizard has also raised up an army of Krugs, savage subhumans somewhat resembling a cross between a warthog and a crocodile. All but mindless in their natural state, the Krugs have become a force to be reckoned with under the influence of Gallianís sorcery and the leadership of his Third World sweatshop Ringwraith knockoffs. Any way you slice it, the reign of King Konreid seems destined to end in strife and violence.
Meanwhile, a couple of the kingís former soldiers have made new lives for themselves in a village not too far away. Norick (Ron Perlman, of Cronos and Blade II) is less than thrilled with civilian life, and constantly fantasizes about being called up for a new war despite being plainly too old for such things. Farmer (Jason Statham, from Ghosts of Mars and The One), however, is quite content to live out the rest of his days asÖ well, a farmer. So obviously the two menís futures will more closely resemble Norickís wishes than Farmerís. One day, while the latter is away at market with a wagon-load of turnips, Gallianís Krugs overrun the village. Farmer makes it home in time to help Norick kill a Knockoff Knazgul and a shitload of Krugs, but too late to save his child from being killed or his wife, Solana (Claire Forlani), from being dragged away in chains along with most of the neighbors. He therefore has other priorities when Konreid, Tarish, and the rest of the Royal Guards ride up in response to word of the Krug attack, looking to enlist commoner infantry. After giving the king a most insubordinate piece of his mind on the subject of a monarchís role as protector of the realm, Farmer sets off to square up accounts with the beast-men, accompanied by Norick and another bellicose villager named Bastian (Will Sanderson, from Alone in the Dark and House of the Dead).
Their quest covers most of the mock-Tolkien bases. There are difficulties with unfriendly nature. Thereís a forest that is totally in no way Mirkwood, where the adventurers have a run-in with Elora (Kristanna Locken, from Bloodrayne and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines) and her tribe of man-hating lesbian wood elves. There are Krug ambushes, clashes with the Swart Riders, and an infiltration attempt that ends with our heroes in their enemiesí clutches. And while all thatís in the works, the rest of the cast get their Gondor on. The Krugs mass for an all-out assault on Ehb. Muriella badgers her father and Tarish to let her play some active role in the coming fight, and finally resorts to dressing up in male drag to take the field with the kingís army. Duke Fallow, showing his hand as an ally of Gallianís, tries to assassinate Konreid by poisoning his breakfast, but winds up having to poison himself as well to keep up appearances. Although Fallow gets better thanks to Gallianís magic, the obviousness of his treason forces him to flee the castle and take up arms openly as a captain in the wizardís Krug army. And as Konreid lies on what everyone expects to be his deathbed, Merick comes belatedly forward with a secret that changes the picture of this war for Ehb rather drastically. You remember that son of Konreidís, the one who supposedly died when he was just a baby? Well, heís actually alive and in perfect health, at least for the moment. Maybe youíve even seen himó big guy, blond buzz cut, South London accent, answers to ďFarmer?Ē Maybe somebody should go find him, eh? I mean, with Konreid as sick as he is, it might do the war effort some real good to have an heir on hand who wasnít in Gallianís back pocket.
I said before that In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale was Uwe Bollís most convincing counterfeit of a big-deal Hollywood production. Indeed, itís so convincing that I can easily imagine an unprepared viewer being taken in by it at first. While itís by no means as impressive to look at as the Lord of the Rings movies, it nevertheless lacks almost completely the shoddy appearance typical of toweringly bad films. The sets, props, and costumes reflect a lot of thought and imagination, the Krug suits are adequate, and the computerized special effects are no worse than those in Hellboy, Spider-Man, or Van Helsingó which is to say that theyíre unpersuasive, but in a thoroughly ordinary and unexceptional way. The movie is well enough supplied with stuntmen and extras that the scale of the battle scenes feels credibly large, and what shortcomings there are in that department are masked by having the armies clash either by night or in the depths of the wood elvesí forest. The one-on-one fight choreography is decent, and the camera mostly stands far enough back from it that we can see whatís going on. And of course there are all those surprisingly big names in the cast: Burt Reynolds, Ray Liotta, Jason Statham, Matthew Lillard, Leelee Sobieski (well, she was big in 2006), Ron Perlman, John Rhys-Davies.
So how is it, then, that In the Name of the King manages to be so epically awful? Well, take a look at that cast listing again. Perlman and Rhys-Davies are veteran character actors; they can do just about anything that calls for a physically imposing middle-aged man with a certain personal gravitas. They more or less belong here, in other words, although Perlman does seem increasingly annoyed with the gig as the film wears on, as if he were promised that each successive set-piece was to end with his characterís death, freeing him to collect his paycheck and move on, only to find that the script had changed with each new dayís shooting to keep him around just a little bit longer. The rest, howeverÖ Ray Liotta is a terrific actor. I mean, I went into Goodfellas expecting it to be tolerable at best (any movie that requires me to spend so much time listening to Joe Pesci talk is on thin ice from the get-go), and I give Liottaís performance a lot of the credit for elevating it beyond that. But you know what lies outside his effective range? A power-hungry sorcerer in a Medieval fantasy world, for one thing. Liotta clearly had absolutely no idea what to do with the part of Gallian, and Boll either didnít know how to tell him or simply didnít care. Burt Reynolds is even more egregiously miscast, and even more helplessly adrift in his role. There may be nobody of the correct age in Hollywood less regal than he, no one less suited to play a beloved peacemaker and lawgiver. Reynolds looks completely befuddled at all times, creating the impression that King Konreid would be just about ready for the nursing home even without scheming heirs poisoning his food. Jason Statham, too, is a huge mistake. That hardly seems possible, since Farmer is a prickly, reticent tough guy who relates to the world mainly by punching it in the face, and thatís basically what Statham is for. The trouble is, Statham is a very modern sort of tough guy. I could maybe buy him in a movie set as early as World War I, but anything before tható or even a fantastical version of anything before tható is no go. The only person apart from Perlman and Rhys-Davies whose performance I can at all get behind is Matthew Lillard, who alone seems to understand that heís in a terrible movie, playing a part he should never have been considered for, let alone given, and who approaches the job with all the seriousness it deserves.
The rampant miscasting is the primary force sending In the Name of the King spinning off-course toward Crazyland, but itís hardly the only one. This, after all, is a film whose creators evidently liked the wood elf incident in The Hobbit enough to steal it, but decided that it would play better if the elves were militant lesbian environmentalist Cirque du Soleil acrobats. Itís a film in which the good guysí army during the two biggest battles includes a company of ninjas for no apparent reason, as if Boll or screenwriter Doug Taylor were seized at some point by a severe attack of Golan-Globus nostalgia. Itís a movie otherwise fairly scrupulous about maintaining its faux-European milieu (even to the extent of harping on Farmerís turnips in contradistinction to the New World potatoes so beloved of Peter Jacksonís Hobbits) in which the main heroó and only the main heroó nevertheless wields a boomerang. Itís not only a movie about a farmer named Farmer, but one that feels compelled to call attention to that state of affairs by offering a limp and laughable explanation for it. (The real explanation, of course, is that thatís what the player character in Dungeon Siege is called, and Boll had taken lots of shit from fans of the games for all the liberties he took with the source material in House of the Dead and Bloodrayne.) In short, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale is a film you can watch over and over again, finding new fuck-ups, fumbles, and just plain dumb ideas each time.