The pitch was Vikings versus an alien - a Dark Age Predator if you will - that ensured we would see bad-ass, warmongering meat-heads going toe-to-toe with some bloodthirsty beastie from another planet. It is the stuff of fan-boy fantasy, of course. One of those devoutly cinematic dust-ups that is obvious hokum dreamt up by quick-buck exploitationers for those eternal kids amongst us who liked to set their toy soldiers up against their toy dinosaurs. But director/writer Howard McCain's cheerfully monstrous Outlander suffered quite badly at the hands of the Weinstein Company's uncaring distribution. Only a handful of cinemas took it for a US theatrical release and it looked decidedly doubtful whether it would even play the UK on the big screen at all. However, the film did come out over here but, again, was lumbered with a horribly spotty release and, as is the case with a great many unsung, unloved movies, word-of-mouth and slavish praise from certain quarters ensured that McCain's violent outdoors romp garnered itself something of a cult following.
Starring moody blank-sheet Jim (The Passion Of The Christ) Caviezel as an intergalactic soldier called Kainan, whose ship crash-lands into a lake in once-idyllic 7th Century Norway, the plot sees this stranger in a strange land having to band with the local tribe of tattooed Odin-lovers in order to do battle with the mighty Moorwen, a ferocious rhino/bear/mini-Godzilla type of beast that just happened to hitch a lift through space with him, and is responsible for killing his chums and forcing him to fall from the sky. Initiation isn't easy and Kainan endures the trials and rituals of the Vikings, incurring the resentment of proud warrior, Wulfric (Jack Huston) who seeks to assume the throne from beneath the noble Chieftain Rothgar (John Hurt), the wary attraction of the King's daughter, Freya (Sophia Myles), and the goggle-eyed infatuation of young orphan and wannabe warrior, Erik (Bailey Maughan), who seems to be the cosy blending of Mad Max 2's Feral Kid and that tousled scamp who dolefully watches William Wallace's execution at the end of Braveheart (two of Gibson's movies, eh?). Other Vikings from the tribe that we, alongside Kainan, are forced to embrace get their grizzled faces on the screen, but only Cliff Saunders as the somewhat familiarly monikered Boromir - a squat, mead-swigging oaf who reminds me of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome's Ironbar Bassey (another Mel Gibson reference!) - is given an opportunity to make his presence felt in what amounts to Outlander's token gesture to the typical comedy stooge role. Which, when shunted up against the standard love interest and trial-by-fire rigmarole towards ultimate acceptance and victory guarantees the standard formula for such disposable fodder is followed to the letter.
Whilst the lure of this collision of genres is hard to resist, the history of cinematic Viking endeavour is a hit and miss affair. For every "The 13th Warrior" there is a "Pathfinder". For every swashbuckling Technicolor romp such as the awesome Tony Curtis/Kirk Douglas rampage The Vikings (1958), there is the dreary, dull and lifeless Beowulf And Grendel, with a sorry-looking pre-Leonidas Gerard Butler moping about the dreary, rain-sodden countryside. But McCain's concept is so simple, so brazen, so preposterous and yet so marvellously enticing that you wonder why nobody has thought of it before. Arguably, they have. John McTiernan's action-template Predator is the most obvious reference point, but the whole time-displaced, mismatched-combatants game even stretches back to the likes of Ray Harryhausen's Valley Of The Gwangi, which hurled cowboys in the path of prehistoric behemoths, or possibly even The Final Countdown, whose supernaturally transported USS Nimitz contrives to face the might of the Japanese armada on the eve of their infamous attack on Pearl Harbor. Outlander, for all of its genre twists, nods and tweaks, breaks no new ground of its own. Rather, it just sets out to deliver exactly what it says on the tin - exuberant action, some macho, brothers-in-arms male bonding and, erm, even more action. And, as a lot us know, there is nothing at all wrong with that recipe.
Leading the Vikings like some Dark Age commandos, Kainan asserts that the Moorwen is actually a dragon, something that these hairy Olafs are more likely to understand, and the film then rarely pauses for breath as they realise, painfully, that the alien critter is hardly in the mood for playing games of hide and seek. Taking the fight directly to these puny humans, the Moorwen, like that fabled troll, Grendel, makes repeated attacks upon their encampment, and even armed with Kainan's knowledge of the beast, having battled its kind before, every trick and every trap that they set for it leaves more body-parts strewn across the deck. Adding to this jazzed-up Nordic combat-shock is the awesome Ron Perlman, one of the greatest anvil faces in film, who is supreme as one-man-riot, Gunnar, the arch-rival to Hurt's more salubrious ruler. Essaying the vengeful hot-head who is out for blood in the mistaken assumption that our boys are the ones responsible for the massacre of his people, Perlman manages to eclipse memories of his laconic Hellboy and reminds more of Blade II's volatile vampiric assassin, Reinhardt. Wielding two colossal battle-hammers and a severely bad attitude, Perlman's Gunnar comes on like a hog-less Hell's Angel, head shaved down to the bone and sporting a beard that could hide Big Red's Right Hand of Doom. A plaintiff plea regarding the whereabouts of his dead wife and son to his arch-enemy, after a skull-bashing set-to, even makes us realise that Gunnar's got more about him than mere barbarism, even if the back-story does smack of contrivance. And when you clap eyes on the craftily bio-luminescent Moorwen - coming across like a mutation of Forbidden Planet's own celebrated Monster from the Id as seen when it is lit up by the film's electrified laser fence - you know that Outlander is determined to supply a memorable beast.
As an action-junkie, you couldn't really ask for more, could you?
But the film has a fair few detriments as well, and some of these really do conspire to take it down a peg or two. Jim Caviezel may look good in his sleeveless alien jumpsuit and, later on, kitted-out in his inherited Nordic attire, but he possesses neither the wit, the charm nor the personality of a proper heroic lead. In the likes of The Thin Red Line, his moody existential shtick was perfectly necessary, and in The Passion Of The Christ he exhibited a staggering level of tortured conviction. But, stripped of the eloquence of Malik's meandering GI and the “etherealism” of Gibbo's (him again) mutilated Messiah, Caviezel lacks the vigour of even the most basic of action men. With deadpan delivery, almost comatose eyes and an expression of dedicated somnambulism, he becomes one of the most uncharismatic heroes ever to grace the screen. And, yet, he still manages to somehow pull off the role of his displaced starman. For someone who has played a part in a galactic genocide, suffered an incredible personal loss and then been stranded on a far-flung planet with only a ceaseless battle with an unforgiving nemesis to keep him going, this emotional stagnancy is probably a pretty accurate depiction. But the problem is that he is so damn hard to warm to. As is the utterly ridiculous Sophia Myles who, I have to say, is monumentally miscast as the supposedly feisty Freya and drains any fun from the film whenever she is on-screen. Even for a bit of posh totty amongst the heathens, her noble graces just don't work. Her diction is utterly daft and so out-of-character and context that certain scenes of relationship-building with the Outlander are rendered quite embarrassing. Witness her appallingly naff reactions to Kainan's tale of woe and her subsequent bestowing upon him of the tribal super-sword. Even in a movie that only really needs to get by on its thrills and spills, such episodes are dour and often cringe-worthy. Whilst undeniably a seductive slice of decadent treachery in the likes of Underworld, her presence here does the film no favours at all. Besides, and I admit that this is a totally personal thing, she's about as sexy as a spear-poked Moorwen and it is hard to accept that she would become the object of any hero's attention.
But back to Caviezel. He sure does have a very strange manner about him, doesn't he? Kainan is obviously an outsider, but even the actor, himself, carries an air of aloofness that makes him somewhat untouchable and elevated. Now this is precisely the attribute that aided him so well in both The Thin Red Line and The Passion Of The Christ, but it doesn't necessarily translate so well to simple actioners in which we need to hear the odd quip, one-liner or shallow remark of reluctant derring-do to either endear him to us or have us roll our eyes in mock dismay at such quote-heavy placement. But, barring one understandable expletive right at the start, Caviezel gives us nothing to latch onto. There are so many scenes where we are supposed to glean some inner emotion, some internal thought processes - such as when he and the boy who idolises him sit in silent contemplation of each other in the aftermath of the battle with Gunnar - but Caviezel and McCain seem to believe that such things can be conveyed simply by a lingering shot of a supremely expressionless face. Likewise, his own treatment of Kainan's tragic past - seen in perfunctory flashback - is so banal and unconvincing that it actually helps us to side with the beast even more than we had done previously.
But, in stark contrast to this appalling potential drought of viewer empathy with the good guys, we get John Hurt and Jack Huston.
John Hurt can be exceptional, or he can be ridiculous - but, whicherver extreme he opts for, he is always watchable. He also has an eclectic track record, which is a wonderful thing and shows that he is willing to tackle almost anything. In recent years we've had him as a profoundly lyrical bounty hunter in John Hillcoat's excellent Aussie Western, The Proposition, and then as the gibbering caricature of Prof. Oxley in Indy 4, in which at least he seemed to know that there was no point in taking any of it seriously. Here he channels his thespic talents into something that is part pantomime, part Viking vulgarity and part LOTR's resilient, life-renewed Theoden as the hoary old King Rothgar. But, despite the giggly sight of the former Elephant Man prancing around his mead hall bedecked in furs and whiskers and spouting kingly-speak, he is certainly throwing some energy into this cheeky chieftain. Going mano-et-mano with Perlman's towering brute, Gunnar, is something that even Arnie in his prime would have baulked at, but Hurt pitches-in with lusty vigour during the big skirmish in the stockade, his fears shattered almost as easily as his wooden shield but his lead-from-the-front ethos a shining example of aged leadership. Even genre clichés of noble talk and the rites of passage acceptance of the hero/stranger into the tribe are made all the more credible and welcome by Hurt's genuine croaky warmth and full-blooded zest for the role, and there is surely no-one else quite so surreptitious at getting exposition under our radar. And it then has to be said that Kainan's relationship with Wulfric is saved only by Jack Huston's agreeable performance as the ambitious heir to the Hurt's throne. Huston may look like a low-rent, Californian Eomer (and, ironically, Eomer's Karl Urban was initially wanted for the role of the Outlander, but jumped long-ship to go that other Viking muscle-fest, Pathfinder) but he is clearly enjoying leaping about the stockade, running through caves and dodging napalm-tipped razor-claws. He is, it has to be said, considerably more charismatic than the film's proper leading man and there is a solid sense of chivalry nibbling about within his renegade nature that means he nails in the first couple of minutes of us meeting him precisely that which Caviezel finds so elusive to imbue his wooden warrior with throughout the entire rest of the picture. Mind you, is it just me, or is his designer stubble painted on?
McCain employs so many movie riffs and homages that it is impossible to keep track of them all. I, personally, detest the Mad Max 2 style young-boy hanger-on who is meant to rekindle Kainan's love for humanity and provide him with a sense of responsibility and belonging. It is just such an annoying cliché, but given that the movie is a deliberate hark-back to the action fare of the 80's - in which we always had a cold, implacable hero who hid his haunted soul with action and not words - I have to concede to its validity in the scheme of things. And the same has to be said about the de rigour manufacturing of a mighty sword in one impromtu “smithying” session - although this blade is definitely one of those incredibly impractical fantasy things that could never actually be lifted, let alone used in combat. But there are also little nods to the likes of the original The War Of The Worlds, Dragonslayer and even Reign Of Fire when the tribe's Christianity-preaching, Friar Tuck-alike foolishly attempts to drive out the beast with a few Good Words. A boozed-up bonding ritual in which Wulfric challenges Kainan to a run-around a circle of held-aloft shields in the Great Hall would be shamefully silly if it didn't touch its forelock to the God-like Kirk Douglas leaping oar-to-oar around his long-ship in Richard Fleischer's classic The Vikings.
Nice touches abound. Kainan's spacesuit looks like medieval armour, for instance. His terrific flame-out, futuristic side-arm would surely have ended the film a lot sooner if McCain hadn't seen to it that the stranger loses it seconds after charging it up. When his ship plunges into the lake, an almost Fortean fish-fall rains from the sky and the sight of a carved-up Killer Whale in a veritable ghost-town is a grim warning as to what slaughter will follow. Kainan's more modified and calculated combat-style is a cool and swiftly economic reply to the Viking's more primitive brawling and you've just got to love the convenince of retinal implant that can impart lingo, culture and history in just a few short seconds, effortlessly doing away with any educational montages, as seen in the, otherwise excellent, The 13th Warrior. Visually, though, the film can occasionally over-reach. Patrick (Pitch Black, Godzilla, I Am Legend) Tatopoulos lends his creative design genius to the Moorwen, whilst CG anoints it with fire, crackling laser-veins and athleticism. But the film betrays its lower budget with some patently sub-par gore spraying out from wounds, severed limbs and, in one otherwise gloriously grisly act of butchery, a sudden decapitation, that reeks of uncompleted CG - just look at the carelessly overlaid smears of blood on some of the victims. It appears almost as if it has been applied on glass-screen over the top of the characters. But then we get some lightning-quick flashes of neon-crimson through the trees as the beast plays cat-and-mouse, which prove to be highly atmospheric and beautific, and hats off to the great underwater vision of Kainen's sunken ship and, better still, the eerie sight of it going under the churning waves amid lights and froth as its last two crew-members float to freedom.
Also more than reasonable is the score from Geoff Zanelli. Hailing from Hans Zimmer's Media Ventures Group, this is a very typical synth-heavy job that Zanelli manages to present with the appropriate doses of adrenaline and suspense, but also some pseudo-noble pomp and grandeur. Shades of Gladiator's dense heroics can't help but poke through, but there is a great episode of epic, doom-filled splendour for the flashback sequence of Kainan's part in the Moorwen genocide. Zanelli, thankfully, incorporates a reasonably large orchestra as well, and this helps to give his clashing and momentous themes a rewardingly organic sound, too.
But McCain can't resist the temptation to indulge. The set-pieces are numerous and the film does, inevitably, seem to go one escapade too far when we reach a massive waterfall confrontation that seems to straddle, in one precipitous swoop, similar moments from The Last Of The Mohicans and Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom. There is the feeling that he saw this film as possibly his last word on the subject and just wanted to throw everything into it. But you certainly can't deny that you are getting your money's worth. This is the medieval quest saga - Beowulf, King Arthur - genetically spliced with the modern actioner and peppered with hints of The Relic, Predator, Gorgo and even Jaws 3 and, taken in that hybridised spirit, Outlander is pure B-movie gold. Outrageously exciting, wonderfully evocative, filled with characters the majority of whom, against all the odds, rise above their threadbare stereotyping to become, admittedly, cliché-ridden cut-outs that you may actually take a liking to, McCain's highly assured pageant of grunge is capped-off with one of the most original and terrifying monsters in recent years. And, in true King Kong and Ray Harryhausen style, the beast is even given a genuine degree of pathos and dignity amidst the carcass-ripping. McCain has, at least, attempted to cover all bases and he should be given due credit for that kind of zeal. But, having said that, you must also be prepared to swallow an enormous amount of derivative genre bunkum, as well.
Despite its poor lead, Outlander is ripe, ribald and riotous. And, backing this up, McCain's imagery is vibrant, vivid and visually captivating, and his film deserved a great Blu-ray release to compensate for its woeful lack of theatrical exposure.
But, as we shall see, it wasn't even lucky enough to be granted one of those.