Tales of an Ancient Empire / Abelar: Tales of an Ancient Empire / The Sword and the Sorcerer 2 (2012) 0
It’s absurd for me to say this, but I’ve been waiting to see Tales of an Ancient Empire for literally 30 years. The Sword and the Sorcerer was one of those films that were forever playing on cable television when I was a kid in the early 80’s, and I fell in love the very first time I saw it. Indeed, my nine-year-old self liked it better than Conan the Barbarian. I preferred its faster pace, more humorous tone, and stronger emphasis on magic and monsters. Hell, I even preferred its production design, that delirious mix of Medieval, Arabian, and pulp fantasy sensibilities. And seriously, when you’re nine years old, that stupid three-bladed sword is awesome. Anyway, The Sword and the Sorcerer ended with an exhortation to “Watch for Talon’s next adventure, Tales of the Ancient Empire, coming soon.” Can you imagine how exciting it was to read that on my TV screen in 1983? We were getting a sequel! They were promising us a sequel, right there in the credits! Little did I know that I was about to get a lesson in cinema economics instead.
The Sword and the Sorcerer was an extremely successful film, proportionately speaking. In theaters, it out-grossed movies playing on twice as many screens, eventually bringing in roughly ten times its reported production cost— and that was before cable and home video sales. An immediate sequel might seem like a no-brainer, but producer Brandon Chase was a very cautious businessman. Sure, his movie did well against Conan the Barbarian and The Beastmaster, but Tales of the Ancient Empire wouldn’t be competing with just two other barbarian films. No fewer than ten sword-and-sorcery movies were in the works for 1983, with even more to follow in ‘84 and ‘85. More importantly, only a few of them were intended as high-quality productions with a decent amount of money behind them. Chase knew well that few things can exhaust a trend like a flood of cheap shit, and a flood of cheap shit was exactly what lay in store. Consequently, he decided to put Tales of the Ancient Empire on hold until he could be confident that it was going to be worth the $12 million (triple The Sword and the Sorcerer’s budget) that he was planning to spend on it. We know how that turned out, of course. The likes of Deathstalker and Ator the Fighting Eagle did indeed kill audience interest in the genre, to the extent that even Dino De Laurentiis got out of the barbarian business after the infamous Red Sonja. Even the rise of the direct-to-video market in the 90’s wasn’t enough to get Talon back into action, because by that time, Pyun had discovered that he greatly preferred making movies set in either the present day or a future near enough to require no serious world-building. So instead of a new Talon movie, we got Brain-Smasher: A Love Story and four fucking Nemesis films.
Then the 21st century happened, and suddenly Tales of the Ancient Empire started to look like it might be worth resurrecting. The advent of digital video drove the minimum production cost of a feature-length film drastically downward, just as the virtual replacement of any monolithic mainstream by a million little niche markets encouraged producers to redefine success downward as well. One of those niche markets viewed even the Ator movies with a certain amount of nostalgic affection, and was happy to lap up DVD releases of Roger Corman’s infamously inept barbarian films. Sword and sorcery had come back into some degree of favor, too, thanks to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. And amazingly enough, people Pyun talked to at conventions and suchlike started straight-up nagging him about that sequel to The Sword and the Sorcerer that was supposed to have come out all those years ago. So at long last, in 2008, Pyun scraped up some money, had Cynthia Curnan cobble together a script out of concepts and characters from two or three other projects of his that had never gotten off the ground, and set to work fulfilling his and Chase’s decades-old promise to Talon’s unexpectedly numerous fans. Inevitably, things started going calamitously wrong almost immediately.
If you look closely at the version of Tales of an Ancient Empire (note the tiny, perplexing change in the wording of the title) that finally straggled into DVD release at the beginning of 2012, you can just barely discern the contours of the movie Pyun set out to make four years earlier. That film would apparently have had Talon’s bastard children from all over the lands he wandered in his heyday banding together, and recruiting him to lead them in sorting out some unfinished business with the daughter of his old enemy, the demon-sorcerer Xuxia. Kevn Sorbo was cast as Talon’s firstborn, and Lee Horsley was onboard (at first, anyway) to reprise his role as the old adventurer himself. But when money troubles arose, it became obvious that there was no longer room in the budget for both Sorbo and Horsley, and so the latter’s role was reduced to a cameo suitable for a single day’s filming. Overnight, Tales of an Ancient Empire ceased to be a sequel to The Sword and the Sorcerer in any meaningful sense, and such comprehensive rewriting became necessary that it was essentially impossible to finish the film. A new character had to be invented to take over the story role originally envisioned for Talon, and a washed-up action star even cheaper than Horsley had to be found to play him. Unfortunately, the necessary reshoots would cost money, and Pyun was all out of that. In a truly desperate bid to drum up more funding, he spent more than a year cutting and recutting the patently incomplete picture, and adding a long, explanatory opening crawl in the hope of forcing it to make some kind of sense. Then, in the summer of 2010, he took a stunted and malformed version of Tales of an Ancient Empire onto the convention circuit, while the producers released the same cut on DVD in Thailand.
Remarkably, that mad scheme actually worked— well, more or less. The money raised by the Thai DVD wasn’t enough to pay for Christopher Lambert, and reports that Val Kilmer had attached himself to the project proved delusionally optimistic, but Pyun was able to get Michael Paré signed on. By that point, it was 2011, and Pyun had decided to tie Tales of an Ancient Empire into a forthcoming production, a post-apocalyptic vampire movie entitled Red Moon. Yes, you’re quite right; that’s a ridiculous idea. Even more ridiculous, though, was the fallout from yet another budget implosion. Christopher Lambert wasn’t the only thing that couldn’t be afforded on the haul from the Thai DVD. It also wouldn’t cover things like fight choreography or even proper sets— which was rather a problem, as the loss of Horsley back in 2008 had forced Pyun to defer all the major action set-pieces until he had cast a replacement hero. Tales of an Ancient Empire was thus doomed to become probably the only sword-and-sorcery movie in history to be effectively devoid of both swords and sorcery. It was also, if anything, even more incoherent and incomprehensible than before, so that even more footage had to be added before Lionsgate would agree to release Pyun’s living abortion of a motion picture. The Lionsgate-mandated additions are a sight to behold, let me tell you. They consist of lengthy, static sequences at the beginning and end of the movie, in which a voiceover explains the plot and back-story while the screen fills with what appear to be storyboard illustrations of all the action Pyun was never able to capture on film. Incredibly, they still manage to be the best parts!
Right, then… Instead of Talon, we now have an itinerant scoundrel hero called Oda, who is exactly like Talon except that he’s played by Michael Paré (from Streets of Fire and Alone in the Dark II). Years and years ago, Oda fought a battle against the wizard Xuxia (Norbert Weisser, of Radioactive Dreams and Cool Air, who is in no way an acceptable substitute for Richard Moll) and his vampire daughter, Xia (Whitney Able, from Monsters and Unearthed), who were attempting to assert their mastery over the kingdom of Abelar. Oda bested the wizard, forcing his retreat into another dimension, but Xia was way too sexy to kill, even with the fangs and the blood-breath. So Oda banged her instead, with the result that she became pregnant with an unprecedented human-vampire hybrid. At some point, though (I’m at a loss to follow the timeline here; from the sound of things, either vampire gestation is an instantaneous process, or Oda spent the whole of the next nine months hanging out in the catacombs beneath Abelar’s royal palace), the wandering swordsman regretted what he was about to unleash upon the world, and disemboweled Xia before she could give birth to their half-undead daughter. Both Xia and the fetus got better, however, and Oda spirited the latter away to present her as a foundling to the Abelarite royal family. Then he skipped town for further adventures, as was his wont. All that is narrated for us by Hecate (Cazzy Golomb, of Cult and Legacy), a reincarnation of Xia who will rule the Earth in the distant future of a movie that doesn’t exist yet. Yeah.
Flash forward a couple decades. Abelar is now ruled by Queen Ma’at (Jennifer Siebel Newsom, from Aliens on Crack and April Fool’s Day), with some help from her little sister, Tanis (Melissa Ordway). Strictly speaking, Ma’at and Tanis are merely half-sisters, for although they were born of the same queen, the former was fathered by King Lambosha, while the latter was a souvenir, so to speak, of Oda’s visit to the kingdom. It’s okay, though— Lambosha had already been slain by Xuxia when his wife and the savior of his realm knocked boots. Oda’s an asshole, but he isn’t a gaping asshole. Notice, by the way, that that makes two bastard daughters Oda left behind in Abelar. The half-vampire one we heard about before from Hecate is now called Kara (Victoria Maurette, of Left for Dead and The Theatre Bizarre), and she’s been brought up as one of Queen Ma’at’s handmaids. That’s about to become a bit of a problem, because Xia has returned, as covetous of Abelar as ever. The undead witch’s plan is to raise an army of vampires with which to storm Ma’at’s palace, and then to consolidate her rule at the next full moon by releasing her father from his exile in the form of a just barely animated CGI dragon.
Now in an ordinary heroic fantasy story, Tanis would be sent out on a quest to summon her father to Abelar’s aide, but there’s nothing ordinary about Tales of an Ancient Empire, and that’s not quite how things go here. No one knows at this point whether Oda is even still alive, but Ma’at has learned that he has an illegitimate son called Aedan (Kevin Sorbo, from Hercules and the Amazon Women and Bitch Slap). That’s who the queen dispatches Tanis to find, apparently on the theory that the son of a hero can’t help but be a hero himself. Tanis will recognize her half-brother when she finds him by the necklace that he wears, which is exactly like one of her own: a bronze pendant in the shape of an eagle’s claw. (Get it? It’s a talon, just like the name of that guy who isn’t really in the movie anymore…) Alas, although Aedan does indeed take after his dad, he decisively favors the first two elements of “wandering scoundrel hero” over the third. Still, Ma’at’s money spends as well as anybody else’s, so if she’s willing to pay, then Aedan’s willing to fight the queen’s vampires for her. He doesn’t like the current odds, though, so instead of sailing straight back to Abelar with Tanis, he leads her first on a venture to round up reinforcements.
It ends up being a veritable family reunion. The first stop is the jail cell where Malia (Sarah Ann Schultz, of Wolvesbayne and Skeleton Man), another half-sibling Tanis never knew about, is currently awaiting execution as a thief. Then, after springing her, it’s off to the home of Rajan (Janelle Marra), Oda’s daughter by yet a fifth woman. Rajan has a bastard daughter of her own, too, and now that Alana (Inbar Lavi, from House of Dust and Underground) is more or less grown, she’s almost as formidable a fighter as either her mom or Uncle Aedan. But the visit to Rajan proves even more fruitful a recruiting stop than Aedan anticipated, because she knows something that the rest of Oda’s children don’t— she knows where to find their father. Xia and her minions aren’t ready for this much ass-kicking, even with Kara (who, as a half-vampire, is immune to the deleterious effects of sunlight) tracking the heroes’ movements and reporting on their progress.
Tales of an Ancient Empire is one of those rare movies that blow the whole curve, forcing you to reformulate your previous notions of what it means for a film to be bad. Now that isn’t to say that it’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen, but it’s definitely way up there. More importantly, though, Tales of an Ancient Empire shows off techniques for sucking that I’d never previously considered. Like it never occurred to me that anyone might try to get away with leaving the sword-fights out of a sword-fighting movie, but here Pyun is doing that very thing. The first time there’s a big action set-piece that we don’t get to see— during the opening “Hecate explains the back-story” sequence— it seems like it might be a deliberate stylistic choice. A bad choice, to be sure, but still a deliberate one. But as the film wears on, and the brief tavern dustup between Tanis and an enemy of Aedan’s during the first act continues to be the most ambitious bit of swordplay we’re presented, it becomes increasingly obvious that there’s nothing but sheer poverty and laziness to account for it. And at the climax, when Oda and the Bastard Brigade finally force their way into Xia’s inner sanctum, Pyun might as well have just cut to a still photo of himself giving us the finger, with the camera slowly zooming in on the extended digit. In the end as in the beginning, the battle and its outcome are described to us by Hecate, only instead of Frank Frazetta-inspired drawn storyboards (which are actually kind of nifty-looking, if you can forgive the fact that they’re being shown at all), we get a bunch of truly sad Photoshop compositions of Kevin Sorbo and an electronically rendered dragon that looks like the work of someone who really knows his way around MS Paint. A filmmaker with some attenuated scrap of self-respect would have ended the movie right there and slunk abashedly away, but not our Albert. Instead, Tales of an Ancient Empire drags on for another ten excruciating minutes with Hecate wandering around in a desert, babbling nonsense that only a bit of outside research will reveal as setup for the supposedly forthcoming Red Moon.
Another form of badness I’ve never seen before concerns a new low in computer-generated backgrounds. It was bad enough when George Lucas had the cast do most of their acting on featureless green stages that would later be replaced by sterile digital images of settings that would cost too much to build for real. But at least in the Star Wars prequels, those stages were large enough for the actors to move around on, and the imaginary sets composited in during post-production were legitimately grandiose and impressive. Tales of an Ancient Empire scales the same principle down to a level of chintziness and incompetence hitherto undreamed of, until it looks for all the world as though half the film were shot at one of those “Make Your Own Music Video” places they used to have on the boardwalk in Ocean City. The blocking in these scenes is so tight that the performers barely have room to move (suggesting that Pyun’s green screen was nothing but two king-sized bed sheets hung end to end a yard or two behind the actors), and the digital backdrops depict environments that any halfway competent location scout with an operating budget in the high three figures could easily have found in the real world— or that a library hound with 70% of Ed Wood’s ability in that department could have scrounged from stock travelogue footage. Of course, even the down-market green screen bits look better than the fully animated sequence depicting Tanis’s sea voyage from Abelar. I often accuse movie CGI of looking too much like a video game, but usually when I say that, I have the then-current generation of video games in mind. Not so here. This movie’s all-CGI sequences look like a video game from the early 90’s!
Now it would be irritating enough if Tales of an Ancient Empire were merely a cheap piece of shit informed by a spirit of unparalleled laziness. And it would be more than irritating enough if it were merely all that on top of being a big “fuck you” to everybody who ever got taken in by that teaser in The Sword and the Sorcerer’s credits. But Tales of an Ancient Empire has its sights set even higher— or lower— than that. This film will be satisfied with nothing less than to raise unbidden the prospect of something that thoughtful fans of genre fantasy have been longing for since “Xena: Warrior Princess” went off the air, only to crap all over that prospect after consuming its own weight in gas station chimichangas. Think of all the well-deserved grumbling there’s been throughout the past several years over the state of heroines in fantastic cinema. Fucking Wonder Woman couldn’t get a movie out of Development Hell, even with a script by international geek darling Joss Whedon, and the plug got pulled on her consolation prize of a TV show without so much as a single airing of the pilot. Red Sonja and Barbarella had their new movies wither up and die on them, too. There’s been no move to spin off an Anne Hathaway Catwoman film, even though just about everybody seems to agree that she was the best thing about The Dark Knight Rises. Nobody, to the best of my knowledge, has an Anita Blake movie in the works, or a Rachel Morgan movie, or anything else to capitalize on the “supernaturally empowered female detective fights monsters in a grubby second-rate city” genre that’s been making so much money for paperback publishers this century. So now take a good, close look at Tales of an Ancient Empire. My God, this film features not one, but four female badasses— six if you count the evil ones! Not one of those women motivates the plot with her need to be rescued, all are remarkably non-sexualized by the standards of previous sword-and-sorcery pictures, and all of them are presented as equal to any man, including their illustrious father. It’s exactly what we’ve been asking for… except for the niggling little detail that it’s terrible in ways that even the most hardened crap-movie veteran is unlikely ever to have seen before. Thanks a bunch, Al. Thanks a bunch.