Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Northmen – A Viking Saga (2014)

A small band of Viking outcasts surrounding young Asbjorn (Tom Hopper) were outlawed by King Harald because they “have opinions Harald doesn’t like”, or so Asbjorn tells us. Seeing as they begin the film crashing their boat against the coast of Scotland while they were actually trying to reach Lindisfarne for a bit of rape and pillaging, one might think of somewhat different reasons, but oh well.

Be that as it may, after that tiny mishap Asbjorn and his men – dude with bow, old guy, guy who doesn’t like Asbjorn very much but will come around in the end, etc (all acted well enough for what they are) – do stumble upon a group of Scottish soldiers whom they proceed to kill, acquiring a Scottish noble daughter named Inghean (Charlie Murphy) in the process. Inghean, the men think, just might be what will buy them places in the closest Viking settlement. Alas, Inghean isn’t just any noble daughter but actually the daughter of the King of Scotland himself, so soon there’s half an army on our protagonists’ tracks. Worse, they won’t even be able to trade Inghean in for their safety, because while the king “only” wants his daughter killed if necessary, his favourite mercenaries leading the hunt, Bjorn (James Norton) and Hjorr (Ed Skrein), think it’s much better politics to slaughter her in any case.

Well, at least a friendly Christian warrior monk (Ryan Kwanten, who isn’t as atrociously miscast as you might expect) is around to help the Vikings out a little while they and the increasingly friendly Inghean are looking for a way to leave Scotland.

Now, as I might have mentioned a dozen times or so before, pseudo-historical pulp action movies have an easy time with me, so it probably won’t be much of a surprise that I found myself enjoying Claudio Fäh’s German, Swiss, South African co-production with a bunch of English language actors quite a bit, despite the film’s obvious flaws.

Among these flaws are: you know which colour scheme and you can – if you want – just mentally insert my usual rant about colour films who don’t actually want to take on the visual responsibility of colour but are too chickenshit to actually be black and white here; a script I’m pretty certain if seen filmed a dozen times or so before with slightly different character names and ethnicities; characters who generally aren’t terribly well individuated beyond their names and hair styles; various wasted opportunities to add any kind of thematic weight to the film (and there’s quite a bit of weight pulp adventure can carry, if the people writing it just want it); and the fact that these Vikings and Scottish clanspeople don’t actually act according to the things we know about their cultures.

Fortunately, some of these flaws are problems that I am not exactly happy to encounter yet which still are not too problematic for the enjoyment of the film at hand – apart from the non-colour scheme that wastes quite a few clearly impressive landscape shots for no reason at all. While I naturally prefer the thematically enriched kind of pulp adventure more, there’s nothing really wrong with the more basic version presented here, where every man speaks in gruff grunts that suggest bad hormone problems or damaged vocal chords, at least when he’s not fighting, a situation that can only involve him loudly shouting “Yaaaaaaargh” while showing off his perfect, perfect, teeth, and where there’s clearly nothing at all going on in the characters’ heads. At the very least, director Fäh knows how to film these things clearly and sometimes even moodily (of course – again! – except for that darn lack of colours), and does a fine enough job pacing the series of chases and skirmishes that make up most of the film’s running time. Sure, he’s no Neil Marshall but there’s no shame in that.

While this still sounds like I’m damning the film with faint praise, I honestly quite enjoyed Northmen, its focus on being the simple pulp action piece it wants to be, the grace that comes to a film without pretensions and without the need to apologize for not having pretensions via irony or by being offensively bad (like, say, much less fun Viking movie Hammer of the Gods).

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