Season of the Witch (2011) / Adventure-Fantasy
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence and disturbing content
Running time: 95 min.
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Ron Perlman, Robert Sheehan, Claire Foy, Stephen Campbell Moore, Stephen Graham, Ulrich Thomsen, Christopher Lee
Director: Dominic Sena
Screenplay: Bragi F. Schut
A poorly wigged Nicolas Cage (Kick-Ass, Knowing -- will his hair ever look good in a movie?) stars as Behmen, a middle-aged Middle Age Crusader who leaves doing the fanatical Church's dirty work of exterminating people they tagged as responsible spreaders of deadly Black Plague, only to later be forced, along with faithful companion Felson (Perlman, Mutant Chronicles), to transport a purported witch (Foy, Going Postal) to stand trial at a distant monastery after she has been deemed as potentially responsible for the plague's spread. Behmen sees what others do not, namely her innocence, he finds himself conflicted as he continues to lead her to what will likely result in her certain doom, unless he can figure out a way to protect her. However, darker and more dangerous forces are afoot, and the trek proves to be difficult and the men he is traveling with grow ever more desperate to resolve the issue to avert more needless death and destruction.
Campy stuff, as we've come to expect in recent times with Nicolas Cage, with clunky, comic book dialogue and hammy acting galore. It's a buddy movie and medieval witch hunt flick rolled into one, which, if you're a bad movie lover, can only mean cinematic bliss. It's relatively benign in its approach, not striving to be a great film by any means, and for the sort of matinee flick that pits bantering cohorts into bloody confrontations, it's actually somewhat enjoyably cheesy in a way that probably isn't terribly far from intent. We spend several minutes watching such obvious padding as the attempted crossing of a dilapidated bridge; with most films such excess would be unforgivable, and yet in this low-rent epic, it becomes a curious diversion from the hum-drum.
Director Dominic Sena (Swordfish), who directed Cage in the equally weak Gone in 60 Seconds, somehow manages to keep the story, lazy and lumbering as it may be at times, from becoming truly Uwe Boll-ishly god-awful until near the end, when CGI begins to run rampant with several phony-looking and downright tacky displays that shouldn't be seen out of a cartoon, though perhaps they might be too frightening for many kids to take. He also struggles through some rather unimpressive, shaky-cam-happy fight scenes, where we witness such things as a demon getting a head butt (no joke!) There's an unhealthy anachronism to these characters, who riff with one another in modern day fashion, with at least one character giving his version of a Boston accent (though his portrayer, Stephen Graham (This is England, The I Inside), is from Liverpool, England).
But I'm risking painting the film out to be just irreverent fun, because, for the most part, the actors play their roles with grim seriousness. In Nic Cage's case, his dour delivery makes the film just a bit funnier; for an appropriately bemused Ron Perlman, he strikes what should have been the right tone for a film that otherwise seems off. Claire Foy does fine in a crucial performance that, for the sake of the mystery, has her treading the line between innocent girl and possible evil witch in believable fashion.
Tweaked, re-tooled, shelved, then dumped into the cinematic wasteland of a January release (one might call January the "Season of the Ditch" where unmarketable major studio releases go to die), perhaps only Nicolas Cage's presence keeps this one from going straight to video, but also will make most potential viewers leery at the prospect of a good film worth paying full ticket price for. If you enjoy lackadaisical, clichéd adventures, some of the quasi-historical adventure elements may be enough to engage for a late-night cable television or dollar rental bin escapist diversion -- at least until the bottom drops out for the film's overwrought, schlocky climax that even the lowest of expectation can't salvage. An inkling of originality sparked this story on the supposition that the Black Plague may have had origins from other, darker planes, but it's just a means to an end for the leaden delivery built on top.
©2011 Vince Leo