Thursday, July 30, 2015

Northmen: Vikings in Scotland

Whatever place you name, chances are the Vikings made it there. They were quite the navigators, but not the renegade band led by the young warrior Asbjörn. Their ship has foundered on the rocks along the Scottish shore. Fortunately, they can still fight like berserkers, because they will have to in Claudio Fäh’s Northmen: a Viking Saga (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

Asbjörn’s father was one of the final holdouts, who sacked and pillaged the old fashioned way, unlike the current crop of sell-out Vikings. After his death, Asbjörn has struggled to hold the last remnant together. Getting shipwrecked in Alba (a.k.a. Scotland) will not help his cause. The locals’ initial reception was quite hostile, but it provided them an opportunity to take a nobleman’s daughter hostage. Her ransom should be enough to buy their way into the Norse settlements towards the south. However, it turns out that was no lady, it is Princess Inghean, the Scottish king’s daughter.

Naturally, the king mobilizes his entire forces, but his sleazy mercenary commanders will lead the hunt and they have an incentive to prevent her arranged marriage—permanently. To stay alive long enough to make it to the Danish territories, Asbjörn will forge unlikely alliances with Inghean and Brother Conall, a Christian monk who can handle a staff in a manner that would make Friar Tuck proud.

Whenever Asbjörn’s men are fighting, the film is on pretty solid ground. Fortunately, that is pretty much always the case. Occasionally they stop to lick their wounds, but there is absolutely no hanky-panky going on. The upright Asbjörn sees to that.

While the South African landscape doubles for Scotland throughout Northmen, cinematographer Lorenzo Senatore’s big sweeping vistas make it look like Tolkienesque New Zealand. Technically, there are no fantasy elements in the film (notwithstanding their increasingly incredible exploits), but it certainly looks like a land beyond contemporary reason.

This is not exactly the sort of film that will generate a lot of acceptance speeches on the part of its cast. Nevertheless, Ryan Kwanten does some of his best work outside of the True Blood series as Conall. He kicks butt rather nicely, while brooding over his dark past. The film just clicks together better when he is on-screen. In contrast, Tom Hopper’s Asbjörn is a rather bland hero, coming across like Chris Hemsworth’s even more wooden brother. Although hardly the next Angela Mao, Charlie Murphy handles her action scenes well enough and shows a bit of fire as Inghean. Fortunately, a classically trained cat like Darrell D’Silva understands how to chew the scenery as the crusty old veteran Viking plunderer, Gunnar.

When it sticks when it sticks to hack-and-slash action, Northmen is a lot of fun. Indeed, it rarely gets more ambitious than that, but it is a wise film that recognizes its limitations and adjusts accordingly. Considerably more entertaining than the Norse-themed monster movie Ragnarok, Northmen: a Viking Saga is recommended for action fans when it opens tomorrow (7/31) in Los Angeles at the Arena Cinema.