Movie reviewers will often say that a film is “painful to watch.” It’s an expression that gets thrown around quite liberally, but it’s actually very rare that a film is so incompetent that it might set off intracranial bleeding. “Tales of an Ancient Empire” is just such a film, and much of its ability to do irreparable damage comes from its near total lack of medium shots and wide angle shots.
And what’s even more of a bummer is that I’ve been looking forward to this thing since I first saw “The Sword and the Sorcerer” when I was 13 years old. “Sword and the Sorcerer” had just about everything an adolescent nerd could want from R-rated fantasy flicks: disgusting demons that made peoples’ heads explode, lots of bare breasts, a wicked sword that launched its blades like a hazardous toy, and a barbarian mercenary named Talon (Lee Horsley of TV’s “Matt Huston”) leading an army of swashbuckling johns recruited from a brothel to save a kingdom. In short, it was the best awful sword and sorcery film ever, and it even displayed generally competent filmmaking. But its end credits also promised that Talon would return in “Tales of Ancient Empire.” He never did. My teenage years were ruined.
Talon still hasn’t quite returned but director Albert Pyun has finally delivered something called “Tales of an Ancient Empire” after 30 whole years, during which he seems to have forgotten everything he had once known about filmmaking. White-haired Lee Horsley makes a cameo, but he’s billed as “The Stranger” instead of Talon, for some reason. Kevin Sorbo plays the lead ne’er do well swordsman this time around, which really makes me worry about him. Why is he in this thing? Does he need the money that badly? Can’t Starz give him a recurring role on “Spartacus: Shameful Amounts of Bloodletting” or at least that awful “Camelot” show? Sure, he’s got some crow’s feet around the eyes, but he still looks like the guy who flexed his way through six seasons of “Hercules: the Legendary Journeys.” Please, somebody show Sorbo some love.
Making one even more depressed about the sorry state of recognizable actors’ careers, Michael Paré (“Eddie and the Cruisers,” “Streets of Fire”) plays a warrior named Oda during a 15-minute credit sequence that takes up a staggering 20 percent of the film’s total runtime and looks like it was rendered using Microsoft PowerPoint. In between title cards and pen and ink comic-book art, the film’s mythic lore is dispensed as Paré runs around in a second-hand karate suit and kills wizards. He also says stuff like, “My sword is always poised for something different,” before making out with a vampire woman. After the vampire woman bears his child, Oda kills her in a display of more comic-book art. She later comes back to life and conquers a kingdom built entirely from old curtains and throw rugs.
Also along for the confusion are Ralf Moeller (the big German guy from “Gladiator”) and Gavin Newsom’s wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, who gets consumed by vampires in a clip that’ll be shown on “The Daily Show” over and over again if California’s Lt. Governor with immovable hair should ever run for president. The movie ends with Sorbo battling a drawing of a snake man to the death and promises of a sequel that will explain how vampires conquer the world. Hopefully, it’ll take Pyun another 30 years to make this follow-up and I’ll be long gone by the time its ready to be beamed into microchips in peoples’ brains or however crap like this will be distributed in the year 2042.
If you really need to see a straight-to-DVD sword and sorcery flick this month (and who doesn’t), there is “The Scorpion King 3: Battle for Redemption” with Ron Perlman in an amazing mullet wig and an increasingly campy Billy Zane. Zane starts out at the level of Tim Curry in “Muppets Treasure Island” (1996) and ends up in full-on Dr. Frank-N-Furter mode. MMA’s Kimbo Slice and former WWE champ Dave “The Animal” Batista are also brought in to make up for the lack of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson from the original “Scorpion King” (2002).
Now “Scorpion King 3″ isn’t any good but director Roel Reiné (“Death Race 2″) at least adheres to the conventions of comprehensible filmmaking even though he mangles history by making Roman legions march into battle against ninjas. What I could make out of the film’s plot is just more hoohah about saving kingdoms, only this time the castles are hewed from stone instead of carpet scraps. The movie’s Thailand locations really helped with that one. I can only hope the film crew paid the national park admission fees.
Bob Calhoun is a California freelance writer who specializes in rock 'n' roll, martial arts and Hollywood stuntmen.