By Preston Wilder
Remember when Elijah Wood played a boy called North, back in the 90s? “I’ve seen your name on maps. Very impressive,” said Bruce Willis to North with a straight face (I believe Bruce was wearing a bunny suit at the time). I’d have liked to see that joke repeated in Northmen: A Viking Saga – but of course there weren’t any maps in Viking times, which is why a group of Vikings led by tall, heroic Asbjorn (Tom Hopper) wash up on the coast of Scotland after their ship goes down. They don’t even know where they are, until they meet a local princess (Charlie Murphy as ‘Inghean’) and decide to hold her for ransom.
That makes them sound quite unpleasant, but in fact the Norsemen (Norsemen, Northmen, potato potahto) are a fair-minded bunch. They only want the cash so they can buy into the Viking settlements in the south – they’re outlaws, banished by their grim monarch – and it’s hardly their fault that King Dunchaid (Inghean’s father) doesn’t care about rescuing his daughter, and sends mercenaries to kill our heroes instead. They also fall in with a monk (Ryan Kwanten, from True Blood) who debates religion with Asbjorn – on the Crucifixion: “See it as a symbol” – in between handling his stave like a kung-fu master.
This is a rollicking action flick for 12-year-olds everywhere (unfortunately, a severed head and a couple of nasty impalings mean that it’s rated ‘15’). The Vikings live to fight, and none of them seems very interested in Inghean; it’s a sign of the times that the monk accuses Vikings of wanting only to “plunder and raid” – not ‘rape’, which would be the obvious verb in that sentence. In the morning, hopped up on mead, they like to sing Viking songs (sample lyrics: “So I took my trusty axe and shield…”). Faced with a dubious proposition they say “Yeah, right!”, anachronistically. When they fight, they are ruthless: “It’s them or us!” says Asbjorn, preparing to attack, and picks up a rock. Yes, a rock is a valid weapon against swords and axes – if you’re a Northman.
To be honest, I enjoyed the whole cheesy mess. I like it more than Hercules, for instance, the recent not-quite-blockbuster that tried to play similar material for comedy then see-sawed into melodrama. Hercules in that film was a hustler and spinner of tall tales who became a hero, laden with weighty back-story about his slain family. Northmen – made in Europe rather than Hollywood – doesn’t try to have it both ways, adding neither back-story nor ironic distance. It does what B-movies do, which is to focus on bloody battles (though the film is almost bloodless), men climbing sheer cliffs or crossing rickety bridges, then Asbjorn and the chief baddie – the one with the psycho giggle – grappling in mud, or possibly quicksand, for a suitably filthy climax.
I may be overselling now. The film is uninspired, shading once or twice into unintentionally funny (see e.g. the bit where Asbjorn leaps off a cliff into the sea then takes about 30 seconds to swim into a flooded cave, find a boat, commandeer it and paddle out to rescue the others). There’s a lot of “Noooooo!”s, and general bad acting. I did like the big dopey Viking who says “I’m a warrior, not a climber” when told to scale the cliff – he also expresses a liking for “mead and womenfolk” – but unfortunately he gets killed early on. In a nutshell, Northmen: A Viking Saga is the kind of film where the viewer makes his own entertainment, musing that the squat, snarling ‘Jorund’ might’ve been played by Klaus Kinski if this were a Euro-Western 50 years ago, or that the actor playing the King (“I will not forget your impertinence!”) bears a vague resemblance to our own Costas Demetriou.
So it goes on, from a few surprisingly nice visuals – torchlight in tunnels, silver moonglow when the Vikings look out at the night – to moments when you glance at your watch and think how much better it would be to watch this stuff on TV, channel-surfing past the dull bits. Then the Northmen think they’ve killed the baddie (the one with the psycho giggle) – but he suddenly rises up with a blood-curdling roar and has to be killed again, a cliché that was once all the rage in Hollywood but hasn’t been seen since (yes) the 90s. Can Bruce Willis in a bunny suit be far behind?
DIRECTED BY Claudio Fah
STARRING Tom Hopper, Ryan Kwanten, Charlie Murphy
Germany 2014 97 mins