Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Sword and the Sorceror

Does it make me a bad person that I love rip-offs? Show me the most blatantly mercenary cash-in on a popular trend and I’ll show you a fun night at the movies. The thing I love about them is that they take whatever formula was created by the progenitor of the trend and boil it down to its most superficial elements. For example, what made the original Matrix such a great movie was the whole concept of a virtual reality world where anything was possible, even gravity-defying kung fu. But all the people who ripped it off saw was the pretty people flipping around on wires, so for the next six or seven years, we got dozens of movies where people could do crazy Matrix shit for no real reason besides the fact that it looked cool. They copied the trappings, but not the point behind them.

In that sense, many rip-offs are more efficient entertainment delivery systems than the movies that inspired them. So even though Halloween is a far better movie than any of the Friday the 13th movies, I still watch the latter more often than the former. Sometimes you just don’t want to deal with piddly details like craft and suspense and storytelling competence. You just want to skip to the good stuff.

Granted, it usually takes a few years for me to get over the initial outrage I feel at the unoriginality of it all, but that’s cool. Fine cheese must be aged, anyway.

Which brings us to The Sword and the Sorcerer, as blatant a Conan rip-off as you’re likely to find. Conan the Barbarian was made by John Milius, the gun-toting right wing maniac (this is meant as an observation, not a criticism) who also directed the Cold War classic Red Dawn. He was so sick of the namby-pambiness of his hippie peers that he made a movie glorifying the concept of "Might makes right." It was an ode to a simpler, more primal, and, to Milius’ way of thinking, more noble world.

So there was all this other shit going on in Conan, but all the people who copied it saw was a muscley dude, some swordplay, and a bunch of wenches in furry underpants with their titties hanging out. So that’s what we get in The Sword and the Sorcerer and its ilk. On the Conan rip-off scale, I’d say it’s nowhere near as good as The Beastmaster, but its way better than The Dungeonmaster. Adjust your expectations accordingly.

The movie begins with some evil dudes in robes entering a paper mache cave. Then this Grace Jones-looking broad starts chanting and writhing, and the whole time, you’re wondering when the blue lasers are going to show up. The eighties were all about blue lasers.

But instead, they throw you a curveball by having rubber faces appear in the dirt. Then some kind of glop demon arises out of a pool of mud. He’s played by Richard Moll of Night Court fame, who was also in The Dungeonmaster. In that one, he was your standard evil sorcerer, but in this one, he’s a much more complex character. He’s an evil sorcerer with the face of a gargoyle.

So the deal is that this evil king Cromwell wants to use the Glop Demon’s black magic to take over a neighboring kingdom. To prove that he has the power to do so, El Gloppo uses his mind to rip the Grace Jones chick’s heart out and make it fly across the room into his outstretched hand. It’s a complete perversion of the Jedi mind trick. He might as well be using it to look under chicks’ skirts. (In the movie’s defense, his fingernails glow orange when he does this. This is a completely new twist on the classic blue laser optical effect, so maybe it’s not fair to call this movie a rip-off. Orange and blue are two completely different colors, after all.)

Anyway, the king is played by the low-rent Rutger Hauer knockoff who was also the head villain in the Chuck Norris classic Invasion USA. In that one, he shot a guy in the balls six or seven times to prove how evil he was. In this one, he does it by betraying the Glop Demon after he uses his magic to wipe out the king’s enemies with an ill-defined plague. Cromwell stabs him with a dagger, so Ol’ Gloppy jumps off a cliff. I don’t know, I think maybe this Cromwell guy is kind of a jerk. Maybe you just have to get to know him.

Anyway, the king of the country that Cromwell is invading doesn’t know about this shit because it’s olden times and text messaging hadn’t been invented yet. Sup king? Wear u @? Were all dead. Chk u later, k? That would have saved the king a lot of trouble, but what are you gonna do? So while his kingdom is being invaded, he’s just hanging out in a fake gray beard with his gray-wigged wife. I don’t understand why they couldn’t just hire legitimately old people to play these parts, but I wasn’t there on the set that day so I don’t know what kind of compromises had to be made in order to bring the singular vision of director Albert Pyun (Dollman, Kickboxer 2 and 4) to the screen.

But then the king’s melty-faced son shows up with the news, so the rest of the family flee. The younger prince, Talon, gets to carry the family sword, which is this ridiculous thing that has three full-sized parallel blades. It looks just like a much larger version of the knife hand that the villain screws onto his stump at the end of Enter the Dragon. All that steel must make it weigh about 80 pounds, but the extra weight is worth it because the two side blades can shoot out and impale people so hard that they fly backward about ten feet. It looks like there’s some sort of rudimentary rocket propulsion going on in there, which is an incredible feat of engineering, if you think about it. I wondered what they used for fuel? It’s a shame that this technology has been lost to the ages.

Anyway, even with his triple-bladed rocket sword, Talon can’t save his mom and dad from getting decapitated by Cromwell and his goons, so he flees and grows up to be your standard wandering sword-for-hire in a gigantic fur pimp coat. Then he returns home with his band of warriors, one of whom is played by the bald dude from Murphy Brown. Remember when the worst thing going on in this country was Dan Quayle’s beef with television’s depiction of unwed moms? Man, I miss the nineties sometimes.

So Talon goes to the tavern and learns that there’s an uprising against Cromwell, led by his father’s adviser’s son, whom the people regard as the rightful heir to the throne. This is where you realize that you don’t know what the fuck Talon thinks he’s doing. Since he’s actually the rightful heir, you’d think he’d want to get that shit cleared up. Or at least help out the rebellion somehow. Or some shit. I don’t know. But instead, he just gets drunk until the rebellion leader gets captured. Then Talon has to rescue this hot brunette from a bunch of rapists by beating them up with a turkey leg. She turns out to be the sister of the rebellion leader, so she tries to hire him to rescue her brother. But Talon doesn’t want money. Talon wants pussy. So the chick agrees to screw him in exchange for his services. But the catch is, he’s got to do the job first. Typical. Sure, he rescued her from those rapists, but what has he done for her lately?

Seriously, though, what the fuck is going on with this Talon dude? When he comes back home, he says he has "unfinished business" to take care of (movie code for "revenge") but then all he wants is to bone this wench. It’s like nobody showed him the beginning of the movie, so he doesn’t know that he’s a prince. He really just thinks he’s in town to get laid. Then he finally comes face to face with Cromwell, and a handy flashback reminds him of what the fuck he’s supposed to be doing. But even then, he doesn’t even reveal himself to be the real prince at the end of the movie. He just screws the chick and lets her brother be the king so he can ride off and continue to be an irresponsible lout. Way to piss away your father’s legacy, dude. Conan would never do that. Hell, even Ator the Flying Eagle wouldn’t pull that shit.

But that’s the kind of dude we’re dealing with here: a total chump. Talon keeps getting captured, forcing all of the other characters in the movie to rescue him. Luckily, everywhere he goes, people recognize him and talk about how they owe him for that time he saved their asses. I think they had to put these parts in because, otherwise, there’s very little evidence of his badass credentials in the movie. You never even get to see him chop someone into four parts with his three-bladed sword. I mean, it was pretty cool when he got crucified and then yanked out the spikes with his bare hands, but still. You need to earn this hero shit, Talon. You don’t just get it by default because you’ve got a wacky novelty sword.

There really isn’t much else to say about this movie. There’s a twist involving the Glop Demon that you’d have to be a total fucking douchebag not to see coming (no disrespect to any total fucking douchebags who might be reading this), a cameo by the dude who gets chopped up in the propeller in Raiders of the Lost Ark (this time, he gets his face sanded off by pedal-operated grindstone, but the funny part is, he keeps working the pedal even as he’s getting murderated. That’s dedication for you.), and your textbook topless harem scene (prior to this, the movie had been noticeably light on boobage).

Basically, you get what you’d expect out of a movie called The Sword and the Sorcerer. Namely, a) a sword; and b) a sorcerer. Its story checks out. Unlike that movie The Squid and the Whale, which, unless my interpretation is way off, wasn’t really about squids and whales at all. Maybe they’re saving that for the sequel, where the dickhead divorced dude gets eaten by a whale, so his son has to team up with a giant squid to rescue him. I’m not sure what that has to do with The Sword and the Sorcerer, but I’m just saying. The Squid and the Whale 2: This Time There’s Actually a Squid and a Whale would rule.

Anyway, if you like Conan rip-offs, you could do worse. Deathstalker, for instance. How the fuck do you stalk death? Does that mean you’re suicidal or that you’re so the opposite of suicidal that you’re actually trying to hunt and kill death itself? I don’t get it, man. The movie should have been called Dudechopper, because that’s all the hero does. I don’t mind a rip-off; it’s the dishonesty I can’t stand.

1 comment:

  1. So there was all this other shit going on in Conan, but all the people who copied it saw was a muscley dude, some swordplay, and a bunch of wenches in furry underpants with their titties hanging out. So that’s what we get in The Sword and the Sorcerer and its ilk.

    So true. The exact same thing happened with the original Conan books. The original Robert E. Howard stories were full to the gunwales with allusion, philosophy, social commentary and the like, but all the succeeding writers saw was "gore, grog and girls." That's why the sixty-odd Conan novels not written by REH are out of print, while the original 1930s tales are experiencing a second renaissance.

    Conan the Barbarian may have had massive divergences from the source material, to the point where it's arguable it could be called a Conan movie at all, but that's a whole other argument. When judged purely on cinematic merits and not as an adaptation, Milius infused CtB with so much meaning, cinematic and Nietzchean allusions and depth that it's a very good film in its own right. Sadly, as with the original Conan, all people saw in CtB was the boobs, blood and broadswords. (Rule of three!)

    On the Conan rip-off scale, I’d say it’s nowhere near as good as The Beastmaster, but its way better than The Dungeonmaster.

    The Beastmaster is not truly a CtB ripoff: it was being produced at the same time as CtB, and only released a few months later. It's more fair to call it a CtB contemporary. Sort of like how Antz and A Bug's Life came out at the same time.

    Unlike that movie The Squid and the Whale, which, unless my interpretation is way off, wasn’t really about squids and whales at all.

    You're telling me. I really dislike it when people make movie titles that have nothing to do with the actual film. Like The Barbarian Invasions: nary a barbarian nor an invasion to be seen.