By Kyle G. King. Working mostly within his Russian homeland, director Sergei Bodrov earned critical acclaim with the success of his two action adventure epics, Prisoner of the Mountains (1996) and Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan (2007), thus proving he knows what it takes to intertwine the genre with fantasy and showcase it all with a graceful flair. Tragically he took his rising wave of success and rode it to a place where fantasy epics tend to get bonked over the head and thrown haphazardly into theaters: Hollywood, California. Such a violent, quick, and baffling sensation is what most people will no doubt experience after viewing Bodrov’s latest American feature, Seventh Son.
Seventh Son is based on a book (wouldn’t ya know it) by British author Joseph Delany, titled “The Last Apprentice” (or “The Spook’s Apprentice”, if you’re in a bookstore outside the U.S.) and is penned by three separate screenwriters, Charles Leavitt, Steven Knight, and Matt Greenberg. Originally slated to be released in January of 2014, the film hit production delays and was pushed back a whole year until finally being released to the American public on February 6th. Over the past 13 months, it changed distribution studios and no doubt faced edit after edit after edit in an effort to contemporize it; but what emerged is a shining example of how exactly Hollywood tends to scorch anything even remotely based in medieval fantasy.
The film reeks of a familiar stench, one that out-of-touch studio executives tend to spray during their misguided attempts to make a film relatable. Armed with only contrived story devices, they ultimately end up making it all quite confusing – and wholly unengaging – for the audience. As far as the story goes the characters and mythology have plenty to work with in order to make the film interesting and original, yet somewhere between pre-production, on set filming, and post production, there was a breakdown in vision and conceptualization between studio and director.
Young Thomas Ward (Ben Barnes), the seventh son of a seventh son, works on his family’s farm yet yearns for a life beyond that of pigs, hay, and sharing a single bathroom. Endowed with the good looks of a young Eric Bana, a semi-decent talent in throwing knives, and splitting headaches that leave him with cryptic visions of the future, he meets a man who tells him he’s destined for greatness: an old coot with a strange speaking voice named Master Gregory (Jeff Bridges). Gregory, the last of a thousand Falcon Knights, purchases the strapping lad at a steep price and vows to take him on as an apprentice. Despite the notoriously short lifespan of the Master’s previous apprentices and the reluctance of his loving mother (played by the criminally underutilized Olivia Williams), the two make off to rid the world of whatever darkness might dare come across them.
It’s not long until they do find that searching darkness, most immediately in the form of a morphing half-human, half-dragon witch named Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore, stepping out of her comfort zone). The two “spooks” (warriors who kills creatures of the dark) square off against Mother Malkin and her band of chess pieces in a number of battles that span across forests and dungeons in the ultimate fight of good vs. evil.
There is a grand spectrum of performances found within Seventh Son; all involved seem as though they’re each shooting their own film independently. Bridges takes his Rooster Cogburn of True Grit to another level with a voice that lands itself somewhere between a refined Billy Bob Thorton in Sling Blade and a drunken Gandalf the Grey – it’s certainly entertaining to watch and possibly genius within itself, but oddly out of place among all the other otherwise bland characterizations. No other actors were encouraged to let their freak flag fly as high, and certainly nobody told Bridges to honor that casualty of performance by flying his at half mast, which leads to an uneven balance of character.
To make matters more confusing, Ben Barnes, at 33 years old, can’t muster the romantic, boyish charm needed to make Tom the angsty teenager he needs to be. A few scenes have the two men playing off each other that otherwise conjure a chuckle, but altogether their relationship (figuratively and quite literally) falls off a cliff to nowhere. Djimon Hounsou and Kit Harington each provide small yet respectable support, but with a script built almost entirely for action with very little respect for its characters, it seems an extreme waste of cash and effort to cast such dynamic actors in roles that have no muscles for them to flex.
What just might keep your butt in the seat for the 102 minute running time is the cinematography efforts of Newton Thomas Sigel. His soft yet warm color palettes and engaging fight scene coverage show you that without a doubt the action sequences are what the movie does best. Sigel makes it all digestible and gripping. Similarly, production and costume design are both vital within the medieval fantasy genre, and notable art director Dante Ferretti keeps scenes rich and relevant. Unfortunately pretty colors, big swords, and the weirdness of Jeff Bridges are not enough to push Seventh Son towards quality.
Sergei Bodrov went back to Russia to shoot his newest film, Fool’s Game. Perhaps there he won’t find anxious studio executives keen on poisoning his beloved genre. Back home, caught in the long shadow of Hollywood, we are cursed to rewatch Braveheart, crossing our fingers that Peter Jackson will clean up his act soon. And that might be the most misguided fantasy yet.