Pajibans, it’s all your fault that I get so pissed when I watch bad fantasy. I liked Tolkien and David Eddings and the few scattered Dragonlance books I read well enough, but then you folks are the ones who brought me into the worlds of Joe Abercrombie and George R.R. Martin and showed me exactly where fantasy could actually go. Sword and sorcery tend to get the short end of the staff when it comes to being translated to film, because filmmakers are loathe to compete with what Peter Jackson did in the woods with The Lord of the Rings. And that’s a damn shame. It should push people to do more with dragons and damsels and daggers and dungeoneering. The elements of a decent fantasy pic are all there in Dominic Sena’s Season of the Witch, but it gets muted out under cheesy action and horror movie tropes. The biggest sin of all is that they muzzle both Ron Perlman and Nicolas Cage. Had they simply covered the craft service table in Bolivian marching powder, cut the leashes and let these two gods-among-men loose in full-on crazy pants, oh, my friends, what could have been. Instead, we get yet another boring and dreary entry bound to be covered in dust and consigned to the netherregions of Narnia or Middle-Earth or whatever fantasy region they happen to be fucking-up this month.
Season of the Witch is about witches. But not really. It’s about the Crusades! But not really. As a matter of fact, Bragi Schut’s script starts and stops about seven different times before it actually sends our intrepid bunch of travelers on their quest. Behman (Nicolas Cage) and Felson (Ron Perlman) — not to be confused with Waldorf and Statler — are two Crusading knights, a couple of swinging dicks who talk tough and kill their way over many many different scenery changes in the same battle until Behman accidentally parks his blade in a serving girl (not the traditional, pillaging knight way either but with his actual weapon). Mortified that their noble quest, where they’ve been killing for over a decade, lost its fun when they starting killing women and children for the Lord, they decide to desert and wander back home.
They end up wandering into a town overrun by plague. They are outed as deserters and brought before the Cardinal D’Ambroise (a nearly unrecognizable Christopher Lee gored up with spooky makeup). I’m going to pause and let the delicious irony of Christopher Lee dying in a fright mask in a movie called Season of the Witch wash over those of you who are in the know. Balls in your court, Rob Zombie. The Cardinal has captured a witch (Claire Foy), who needs to be transported to an abby where the monks possess a lost book of Solomon that contains the spells that will enable the plague to be lifted. Behman and Felson tell the Cardinal to stick it where the ages are dark and get confined to the dungeon. Then Behman sees “the witch” and decides that they should instead embark on the quest. So their merry band of plucky questers are assembled — the Cardinal’s best knight Eckhart (Ulrich Thomsen), his loyal priest Debelzaq (Stephen Campbell Moore), and a scheming merchant who will act as guide named Hagamar (Stephen Graham, Tommy from Snatch). Eventually they get joined by a waif with a goony pre-teen moustache who’s both an altar boy and a wannabe knight, Kay (Robert Sheenan). And an adventurer is you!
Instead of simply cutting North and abandoning the bullshit quest, the knights and everyone carry the witch in a circus wagon over hill and dale and through all the typical traps and situations found for Level Two adventurers in the Dungeons and Dragons Guide. The film drags mercilessly through the forest for hours, like a mile hike in fat camp. Unfortunately, the film decides after nearly an hour and half of rusty action movie dialogue like, “You take the 300 on the left, I’ll take the 300 on the right” and bad horror movie boo moments to settle in and start being interesting. Schut decides to stop stealing from every other movie that he’s seen with guys with swords and to actually throw a clever twist into the action. Then, he tries to finish off the movie like The Golden Child. And only Eddie Murphy can pull that off.
Ron Perlman is always awesome, to the point I would call him the WWE version of Morgan Freeman. He’s in some truly fucking terrible films, some that would kill the careers of a lesser man, and yet manages to constantly prevail. I cannot understand why Dominic Sena wouldn’t just let Nic Cage and Ron Perlman go absolutely batshit. The restrained performances aren’t nearly interesting. We want to see Bruce Willis crack wise, we want to see Jean Claude Van Damme do the splits all the way across the floor, and we want to see Nicolas Cage lose his shit. It’s why we watch their movies. But we get the two madmen doing punk-ass shtick in armor, and it’s beneath the both of them.
From now on, I don’t want to see any more knights and king adventures without an R rating. Or at least a hard PG-13. For the most part, the fantasy genre eschews overt sexuality and profanity for a ramped up level of beheadings and delimbings. (Yes, I know, A Song of Ice and Fire, and yes, I know. I know.) If fucking Disney can gouge out eyes and lop off heads, surely we can expect the same. No longer should anyone draw a sword and start a screaming battle charge unless gouts of blood are to follow. Otherwise, you may as well be throwing a bunch of pots and pans down a staircase at drunks. It’s just a bunch of clanging and grunting and bellowing.
It’s hard to get thoroughly furious at Season of the Witch, because I don’t think anyone expected it to succeed, least of all the studio. They released it the first week in January, like an apologetic fart in a subway car. Someone needs to be the first sacrificial lamb of 2011, so why not Nic Cage? Like Robin Hood from last year, the entire premise behind making the film is to sell it overseas on the basis of its leading man’s star profile. And it’s a shame, because had they put a little more thought behind this, it really could have been an excellent little surprise. But if they wanted a quality movie, they wouldn’t have given it to Dominic “Whiteout” Sena to direct.