Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Review: Knives of the Avenger

As stupid sword-and-sorcery movies go, Knives of the Avenger (on Netflix Instant) is less stupid than many, but short on both swords and sorcery. It's also short on story—its simplicity and predictability make the film seem as if it may have been intended for children, except for the rape.

The sorcery is entirely dispensed with early on, after a tediously long opening sequence involving some sort of soothsaying witch. It's her cryptic exposition that clues us in that this is supposed to be a Viking movie. She persuades some Bond-girl-esque queen and her strange-looking son to flee the land, just before the antagonist (Argin? Argyle? something like that) shows up to mock and torment the witch.

Why all this is happening isn't revealed for what feels like an hour, after our hero has finally been introduced. He's played by Cameron Mitchell (Captain Santa Claus in Space Mutiny and head evil guy in Stranded in Space) in a bad dye job. His character's name is Rorik or Rurik or something, but that's technically a spoiler—not that you will care. You'll be too distracted by his terrifying similarity to Zapp Branigan in the hair and skirt departments.

Eventually Rurik finds pants, and the exiled queen, though not in that order. As we learn in a flashback that mercifully cuts away right before it gets unpleasant, Rurik raped this queen several years earlier during a vengeful attack upon his chief enemy, Argin—only Argin is also the enemy of the queen's even-more-exiled husband, King Harald (Senator John Kerry in a role that will bore you); don't waste your synapses trying to decode the politics at play. The queen thinks Rurik's a stranger because, during the rape, he wore a helmet masking his face, I think. Rurik helps the queen and her son by saving them from evil henchmen a couple times, then meanders off to confront Argin, who eventually kidnaps the prince, etc. etc.

The story is paced strangely enough that half the reason I kept watching was just out of bafflement, although toward the end it starts to fall into more predictable beats. More frustratingly, the precise relationships between all these characters don't become clear until near the end (except for the prince, who is very obviously so strange-looking because he's Rurik's son). Some confusion nevertheless persists right to the credits—although I suspect the question of whether or not the queen realizes that Rurik is her rapist is supposed to be ambiguous.

Knives of the Avenger was directed by Mario Bava (Black Sabbath, Danger: Diabolik) and is mostly dull, but easily riffed-upon. The fight scenes are dated and the editing is laughably abrupt and cheap. One of the few sources of occasional enjoyment is the often catchy score; it's so faux-Morricone that I wonder if Bava was trying to inspire a new genre, the Spaghetti Northern.

I suppose I should address the whole "Knives" aspect of the title. See, the gimmick here is that our rapist hero (and at least one of his enemies) is especially talented at knife-throwing. So much so in fact that he apparently carries around ten thousand knives with him everywhere he goes, and also they're invisible until they impact a target. (I did mention the editing, right?)

One of other things that kept me watching, and there weren't many, was Cameron Mitchell's performance. He's one of those blocky, man's-man actors who displays inherent gravitas, whether he's making an effort or not. Here, I could tell he was making an effort (I know because I've seen Space Mutiny many, many times), but the source material didn't give him much to work with. It's also a struggle to stay invested in performances with such a heavily '60s tone—more than once I thought of Secret Agent Super Dragon, despite it being a contemporary spy film and as far from a Steve Reeves-esque Viking fantasy "epic" as a movie could seem to be.

In short, if you sometimes feel nostalgic for the kind of very cheap, not-remotely-famous movies TNT used to show years ago (this one doesn't even have a Wikipedia page), you may gain some faint enjoyment from Knives of the Avenger. Raise my score by a star if you really like cheesy '60s melodrama, too.

Star Score: 1 out of 5

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