MEDIEVAL (NETFLIX) (2022)
SYNOPSIS: A righteous mercenary leader seizes his destiny as he wages war against the armies of the Teutonic Order and the Holy Roman Empire.
The name Jan Zizka may not ring a bell, but to Czechs, the Bohemian military leader was a storied legend still regarded as one of the greatest commanders of all time. This latest attempt by director Petr Jakl at portraying the legendary figure does so through an English language feature with a cohort of notable actors – including Ben Foster, Matthew Goode, Michael Caine and Til Schweiger – but ends up letting down both its audience and its talents with scene after indistinguishable scene of brutal swords and splatter combat.
As with such period epics, ‘Medieval’ begins with a bit of history: following the death of Charles IV, Wenceslas IV was to ascend to the throne of Bohemia and Roman emperor, but his weak reign has both nobleman Henry III of Rosenberg and Wenceslas’ half-brother Sigismund try to topple him. In order to get Henry III (Schweiger) to keep his word and help Wenceslas be crowned emperor, Lord Boresh (Caine) tasks Jan (Foster) and his band of rough-hewn warriors to kidnap Henry’s fiancée Lady Katherine (Sophie Lowe) as leverage.
After a brisk half-hour of scene-setting, the rest of the movie essentially unfolds as a cat-and-mouse game among various players. There is Henry’s men, who have been sent to rescue her for fear of crossing her uncle, who happens to the King of France. There is Sigismund’s men, led by the ruthless Torak (Roland Moller), who quickly sets up a personal feud with Jan after murdering his nephew and kidnapping his brother Jaroslav (William Moseley). And last but not least, there are the local rebels, whose hideouts in the dense forest provide refuge for Jan and Katherine.
At more than two hours, the back and forth can get exhausting to say the very least. Much of the combat unfolds in the same grimy, gory and grotesque fashion, deliberately filmed in over-exposure and hyper-stylised mode. Aside from which body parts are smashed to bits, there is little distinction between the non-stop battle scenes, notwithstanding the fine stunt work and period weaponry. ‘Medieval’ is a big step up for Jakl after the 2010 true-crime drama ‘Kajinek’ and the 2015 found footage horror ‘Ghoul’, and it is manifestly clear that Jakl cannot quite juggle the demands of such a blockbuster epic.
It doesn’t help that the character drama, despite the heavyweight acting talent assembled, is lamentably weak. Other than being a man of honour, there is little we learn about Jan, except a childhood incident told in flashbacks which continues to haunt him. Katherine doesn’t fare much better, and besides emphasising how she cannot in good conscience stand by while her betrothed commits acts of savagery, she is relegated to a damsel in distress. The rest of the supporting characters are given little definition other than whether they stand with or against Jan, and even a pivotal role like Lord Boresh that has the privilege of the 89-year-old Caine’s performance is sorely under-written.
So despite boasting a pedigree that could equal that of Ridley Scott’s ‘Kingdom of Heaven’, this expensive Czech historical epic falls short in many respects, whether action, character work or even just plain storytelling. It is handsomely mounted no doubt, but one wishes that the filmmakers had spent more time on the details, instead of say filling the time with wall to wall combat. As much as the actors try, there is little they can do to save the movie from its own tedium. But thanks to Netflix, you can and will probably skip out after the first act..
Review by Gabriel Chong