Most of us who are out of our teens can probably agree that, although some extremely good movies are made in the modern day, all but the very best simply can't compete with the films of the past. Especially in America, where even the "art film" is a marketable genre rather than an indicator of ambition and quality, there's simply not much room for the sort of experimentation and creativity that begot the Golden Ages and New Waves of previous generations.
The oft-ignored corollary to that is that there aren't really any truly bad films being produced, either. Indeed, while the occasional timeless masterpiece can still sneak into our multiplexes, the risk-averse minds that dole out studio money are generally too canny to permit the kind of gonzo individualism that is required for the absolute awfulness of an Irwin Allen, while the independent cinema, which might provide that space, is generally too focused on recreating the successes of a small number of models - Tarantino, Jarmusch, Wes Anderson - for the sort of insane creativity of an Ed Wood.
For those who fall down in awe of the Bad Movie, and I am certainly amongst their number, it is a bad time to be a movie buff. Rare indeed is the Battlefield Earth, in which that precious mixture of ego and money and low talent all collide; rarer still is the sort of epic figure whose name can be used as a shorthand for bad ideas and worse execution. Making fun of gross mediocrity is hardly a replacement for gawking at true incompetence.
I hope that wasn't too much set-up, but this is a special review. The first appearance of Uwe Boll on this blog isn't something to ignore.
Boll might just be famous enough that I could get away without describing his terrifying career, but it's worth a refresher: after making a handful of ill-regarded and generally forgotten thrillers in his native Germany, Boll became the unlikely beneficiary of a German tax loophole that made it worth the while of American studios to make cheap bombs using that country's home-grown talent. Thus did he make a few more ill-regarded and mostly forgotten thrillers, but this time in very Canadian-accented English.
The watershed moment came in 2003. Who can say where Uwe Boll first encountered the Sega arcade game House of the Dead, but he did, and the resultant film ushered in a new superstar of badness, a man who clearly cared about nothing other than entertaining himself, and who became one of the great personalities in world cinema, going so far as to challenge all the critics who treated his projects with scorn to a ten-round boxing match. Since 2003, Boll has directed seven films, all of them regarded with universal derision, and shockingly, six of them based on video games - a blighted sub-genre if ever one existed (although, sadly, none of them since House of the Dead have gone so far as to incorporate actual game footage into the film's narrative).
Thus do I come to In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, based on an RPG first released by Microsoft in 2002. Like all Uwe Boll films, it is terrible. Sadly, it is perhaps not terrible enough - it lacks the hallucinatory insanity of House of the Dead or Alone in the Dark - and I might even go so far as to call it Boll's "best" film, although that's a tricky word to use of this particular filmmaker. One of the strangest things about Boll's filmography is that, unlike the great bad directors of yore, his movies are not incompetent. Some of them are in fact very well made in certain respects, often showcasing some truly brilliant cinematography by Mathias Neumann, and generally effective sound design (his films are invariably poorly edited, although I think this is the director's fault, not the editors'). In the Name of the King, or ItNotK is as well shot as anything he has made, and the micro-editing is unusually competent, and even the plot is boilerplate without being crazy. You might almost think you were watching a proper movie.
What saves the film - for a given definition of "saved" - is the cast, full of a startling number of recognisable faces almost all of whom give the worst performance of their careers, and the genial Boll-ness of the whole enterprise, although Boll-ness is better experienced than described. But I was talking about the actors! and what a strange blend:
-Jason Statham as Farmer, the hero who is a farmer
-Burt Reynolds as the King
-John Rhys-Davies (no stranger to bad movies) as the wise mystic
-Leelee Sobieski as the mystic's mystical daughter
-Ron Perlman as Farmer's friend and mentor
-Claire Forlani as Farmer's kidnapped wife
-Matthew Lillard as the treacherous heir to the throne
-Ray Liotta as the evil wizard baddie
Now, we can all agree that most of these performers are past their expiration date, but that all of them should end up in a German/Canadian/US co-production of a desperate Lord of the Rings knockoff is pretty spectacular. And without exception, each and every one of them operates on the same plane of hamminess, often a pitfall in films like these where the truly purple and the annoyingly wooden often walk hand in hand. The only performer who isn't at his or her very worst is Liotta, who as bad movie cultists know made his debut in a one-scene role where he had to rape Pia Zadora with a garden hose in The Lonely Lady. Still, he joins in with the rest of the cast in the serious business of delivering impossible dialogue with all the gusto of a Brian Blessed impersonator convention.
Meanwhile, the plot grinds along with all the notes of a sword-and-sorcery epic from the early '80s: hero's village is burned, hero goes to find the evil army what done it, hero meets up with the king's noble army of light, joins and single-handedly beats everyone. The grace notes are a bit more Tolkien-derived than is necessary (the evil Krugs are at most a half-step from Middle-Earth's orcs), but this is fairly standard stuff, and terribly disappointing to those of us who basked in the almost holy glory that is the incomprehensible Alone in the Dark. Nor do the setpieces show the director's love of inanity; it's mostly easy to figure out what is happening in relationship to everything else.
But for all that, Boll cannot make a movie that isn't cheerfully terrible. He obviously enjoys being behind the camera, as much as any living filmmaker I can think of, and his badness is more of a "fuck you" to everybody that isn't Uwe Boll than mere lack of talent. And for once, he's actually managed to snag decent actors into his mindset - the cast of ItNotK is clearly having fun as they cash their paychecks, and you will either respond to that or not, but it's never just a grind. I don't know if it matters that I laughed at Boll or with him - I laughed, not as much as I wanted, but it was honest laughter, and that makes this a worthwhile film for the certain kind of viewer who counts the likes of Robot Monster as essential cinema.