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Tales of an Ancient Empire
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by Jack Sommersby

"Albert Pyun Finally Has His 'Heaven's Gate'"
1 stars

If you're looking for something to sate even the most undemanding of tastes, might I recommend something more preferable -- like a shit-topped vanilla sundae?

The absolutely wretched Tales of an Ancient Empire can definitely be called one of the worst movies ever made, what with its zenith-level shoddiness and incoherence achieving rock-bottom depths that few motion pictures are capable of. The story is scattershot beyond belief, the characterizations so ill-defined they might as well be holograms, the kitty-litter dialogue as agonizing to experience as a non-Novocain root canal, trite throwaway humor of the cringe-inducing variety, and an ultra-shaky narrative structure so full of holes it's at best a shot-gunned Swiss cheese. The screenplay by Cynthia Curnan has been vomited rather than written, with so many characters and so much incomprehensible exposition that it's more conceptual than contextual -- we're always getting set-ups for upcoming scenes, which give way to even more set-ups for more scenes that continually don't go anywhere; it were as if Curnan were autistic and couldn't keep her mind on anything one thing at a time, so the story never builds off anything substantial, rendering everything spotty and superfluous. We've been made to believe going in that this is some sort of sequel to 1982's The Sword and the Sorcerer, a reasonably entertaining blood-and-boobs-filled sword-and-sandals tale that was co-written and directed by Albert Pyun, who also directed here, but it's about as related to it as compassionate is to conservatism. Where Sorcerer was colorful and bawdy and energetic with a go-for-broke moviemaking fervor that really jazzed up your sensibilities, Tales of an Ancient Empire always seems to be existing in some kind of limbo state -- it doesn't get anywhere, and the scenes (well, the poorly-juxtaposed shots masquerading as scenes, anyway) don't build off each other. What we have here is a production hampered by a low budget, and having to shoot entirely in Hollywood, what with a setting that's supposed to be in medieval land, Curnan and Pyun have opted to take the incredible risk of using monologues and green screens and computer technology to give us an insufferable show-and-tell escapade that would bore even the most spastic kid in class blind. We're being told things that are happening or are going to happen, with an actor or actress addressing us directly into the camera from a storyteller's point-of-view, and then we're given a shot of a castle or a battleground where the happenstances are supposedly taking place, and then we're jerked away to another monologue telling us of the resulting action of a scene that hasn't been presented; it's like a stoner's high-school senior thesis with a cover page that's nothing but roman numerals and no subheadings, riding the surface of something without ever presenting anything that delves underneath -- cinematic shorthand to the quintessential nth degree.

You truly have to see Tales of an Ancient Empire to fully comprehend what it's attempting, which is wildly experimental, to be sure, but not in a remotely enjoyable way. Risk-taking measures can be exciting when cannily brought off, but in this case it's a massive much-ado-about-nothing, all garish sensationalistic excesses that never engagingly affect us because there aren't any semblances of genuine gravitas rooting us in the proceedings. With such a translucently developed story, you'd think it'd be easy to relay to the common moviegoer, but it carelessly leapfrogs around so much without ever touching ground that it's like trying to describe a vague odor that's all of a sudden dissipated from the air. (If ever there was a movie that could be aptly titled Up in Smoke, this is definitely it.) I think it has to do with a pretty blonde princess enlisting mercenaries to join with her to thwart a "vampire queen" sorceress, who rules a kingdom called Abelar, from opening the door to the "otherworld" which will end all human existence, but the treatment of it is so vague the princess could be recruiting blockers to ensure her first-in-line status for a cheap widescreen TV at a Black Friday sale. The opening twelve minutes are nothing but exposition, and they're as confusing as the five-minute opening of David Lynch's appalling Dune. We're told of battles that have taken place, that are on the near horizon of taking place, and the heroes and villains involved in them; and right when we think the movie is going to thrust us smack dab in the middle of these goings-on, we then forward two months later for about five minutes of running time, and then we're thrown back two months earlier, and by this point we know we're in serious trouble. Rather than actually seeing a full-scale battle take place, Pyun will give us a shot of an actor standing in front of an obvious-as-hell green screen, slashing a sword at another actor, and then the "battle" will all of a sudden be over, and we progress to the next leg of the story; or the camera will slowly move over some hand drawings in close-up while a narration tells us what exactly is being depicted. For a wee while, with all this jacked-up visual hyperbole, it brings to mind the inventive-for-its-time rotoscoping director Ralph Bakshi employed in his kinda-underrated 1978 animated feature Lord of the Rings; but where Bakshi didn't overindulge in this showiness by employing a streamlined narrative and adequately built scenes, Pyun absolutely smothers the film frame with it by overusing the advances of digital technology, with a barrage of fancy-pants dissolves and edits and color-transmutations and other attention-getting artifices that keep reminding us of the movie as such in the worst "Look, Ma, I'm directing!" manner.

What's infuriating is that Pyun has oodles of talent and can be a first-rate director when he allows himself to be guided by ratiocination rather than egregious grandeur. The Sword and the Sorcerer didn't exactly have the sturdiest of scripts, which resulted in a lumpy middle section, but it was all of a piece, a consistent vision -- for my money, far better than John Boorman's clunky Excalibur from the year before. Even though the rest of his '80s fare was mostly forgettable (Dangerously Close, Cyborg), there was still bountiful evidence of a genuine visual stylist at work; and in the '90s he helmed two remarkable entertainments that went criminally underrated, the post-apocalyptic thriller Adrenalin: Fear the Rush (with Christopher Lambert and Natasha Henstridge) and the serial-killer thriller Postmortem (with Charlie Sheen), both of which were superbly controlled and executed with dazzling aplomb. Unfortunately, though, as is the case with many gifted directors who start thinking they can take on the shoddiest of screenplays and still make them work strictly through visual means, when their movies are bad, they're very bad, with Omega Doom and Crazy Six Pyun nadirs that were just about unwatchable -- ditto Tales of an Ancient Empire. Nothing in it works. The laughable villainess, with non-intimidating fangs and what looks like a bullet-hole scar on her forehead, doesn't exude so much as an iota of menace. The pallid heroine, played by a silky-skinned actress of utter vapidity, looks to have stepped right out of a Bath and Body Works commercial. The hero, who we're supposed to yield to with his supposed "rascal charm," is dismally acted by the uncharismatic Kevin Sorbo who can't say a line to save his life. The usually-unflappable Michael Pare, sporting a gray fright wig at times, looks like he's in a permanent state of catatonia. When there's an actual scene, it's abysmally shaped; when there's an actual action sequence, it's atrociously staged; when there's an attempt at comedy, it's carelessly bungled; and when words such as "This sword will not be drawn until it receives due compensation," come out of someone's mouth, the words "Maybe deaf people don't have it so bad," involuntarily come out of the viewer's mouth. There's enough visual imagination in Tales of an Ancient Empire for ten movies, but it's uncouth, unfettered, undisciplined -- there isn't any congruent thinking tying the images together. And for all its daring, the movie lacks the sustained craziness of the first half of the 1978 Roger Corman-produced Deathsport, a sort of futuristic medieval flick with swords and ramped-up, silly-looking motorcycles. The saving grace is a too-brief cameo by the always-welcome Lee Horseley, who played the hero in Pyun's Sorcerer and has a scene in a bar here where young, attractive women still flock to his still-handsome mercenary. In less than a minute's screen time, Horseley's relaxed, incorrigible performance is like a breath of pure oxygen.

It didn't have to wind up like this, where we're left wondering if a director as gifted as Pyun has any semblances left of a functional film sense of what will and will not play, what's innovative yet interesting and what's innovative and just plain idiotic. Critic Pauline Kael famously wrote in her review of Jean-Jacques Beineix's much-panned 1983 Moon in the Gutter that it was the kind of palpably bad movie only a talented director could make, because even the most mediocre hacks don't leave this much common sense so far behind. Is Pyun, pray tell, proud that no one else could've concocted something so uniquely and stupefyingly awful? Is he under the unctuous belief that just because one can scrape together the necessary funds and have access to advanced digital and computer technology, those are reasons enough to film something even if the material is so direly lacking? In twenty-eight years Pyun has directed forty-seven feature films, and though this still falls considerably short of the amount crapmesiter Fred Olen Ray (who doesn't have a tenth of Pyun's moviemaking gift) has perpetrated unto unsuspected viewers, it's still highly indicative of someone who's lost what he got into cinema in the first place. The Sword and the Sorcerer was his directorial debut, and he packed every frame with brio and passion, as if this was his first and only chance to direct and wanted to make the absolute most of it -- a scene with a shock (rather than schlock) effect of screaming bloody heads protruding from a cave wall screamed bloody brilliance. And what about the razor-sharp tautness to the bravura action sequences and eerie, doom-laden atmosphere that graced Adrenalin: Fear the Rush, where he made the central setting (a dank, dark, long-abandoned underground prison) as foreboding and scary as any haunted house? The admirable attention to character and sustainment of unnerving, disturbing tone in Postmortem, which boasted a superb extended chase sequence culminating in the killing of a policeman with a potassium-laced syringe? (Plus, it boasted a rare tolerable star turn by Sheen. No small feat, this.) Even his blatant Speed rip-off Ticker, which starred Steven Seagal and Dennis Hopper, played better than it had any right to. Apparently, Pyun has taken the cop-out route by choosing to put out a vast amount of low-grade movies than a select amount of admirable ones -- quantity over quality, in every sense of the word, and it's an embarrassment. Titanically terrible, Tales of an Ancient Empire not only doesn't give you anything, it takes away from you while you're left witnessing the desecration of an art form Pyun obviously no longer has any respect for. This isn't the case of laying pity on a director, but having outright disgust for him for inflicting upon us this horrendous eighty-nine-minute abomination.

I never thought I'd look favorably on Lucio Fulci's "Conquest" or John C. Broderick's "The Warrior and the Sorceress," but such is indeed the case.

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originally posted: 01/27/12 12:09:53
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User Comments

1/28/12 Eric I couldn't agree more with this review. This movie was 89 minutes too long. 1 stars
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  31-Jul-2010 (R)
  DVD: 24-Jan-2012



Directed by
  Albert Pyun

Written by
  Cynthia Curnan

  Kevin Sorbo
  Michael Paré
  Melissa Ordway
  Scott Paulin
  Lee Horsley

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