This is – hands down – my most favorite bad movie of all time. It’s the perfect film to put on if you’re hanging out with some friends, maybe having a few drinks, and you don’t really want to pay attention to a movie, but you still want to watch a movie.
Let me just start by saying this film stars Nicolas Cage and Hayden Christensen. That right there tells you about 70% of what you need to know. I’ve seen this movie around 6 times now, but this was my first time seriously watching and trying to treat it like I would any other film. My opinion has not changed: this movie is terrible and should not exist, but I will continue to enjoy it because it does.
When I make notes for these blog posts, I don’t write down very much while I’m watching the film. I observe as much as I can and make mental notes, then do most of the critical thinking after it’s over – at which point I’ll write down thoughts, points I want to make, and small observations I don’t want to forget. Within the first 5 minutes of this movie, I knew I was going to have to make notes the entire time. I ended up with a long list of stream-of-conscious style notes, which I will do my best to pare down and sum up for you here.
The very first thing you see is an extreme close-up of the bloodied face of Jacob (Hayden Christensen), looking about with a sort of unidentifiable expression as the voice over says a prayer. A title card lets the audience know we’re in the 12th century in “The Middle East.” You couldn’t do enough research or have enough of an imagination to tell us where in the Middle East? The rest of the movie continues in the same vein.
We come upon a huge battle taking place in a city where crusaders are attacking and slaughtering “the enemy.” It’s unclear why this assault is happening, but it’s depicted through shaky camera work and rapid-fire cuts, or copious amounts of slow motion. There is no in-between. While they’re killing anyone in the way, Jacob and Gallain (Nicolas Cage) have an argument revealing Gallain is fed up with the violence while Jacob remains a zealot. There are some questionable hairstyles and spectacularly bad accents to distract you from any potential gravity in the moment.
Once the crusaders have achieved their goal, we’re whisked away by use of another title card telling us what we see now is 3 years later and in “The Far East.” Right. A King (Liang Shi), who is clearly ill, is secretly announcing his younger son (Zhao, played by Bill Su Jiahang) as the rightful heir to the throne. Zhao and his sister, Lian (Liu Yifei), flee the palace as the older son Shing (Andy On) enters the throne room and demands the royal seal. Shing kills the King and blames it on Zhao, starting a massive hunt for the two royal fugitives.
Zhao and Lian enter an Inn after their horse dies on the road, where they’re threatened and picked up by guards looking for them. A VERY messed up Jacob, who has a lot of opium in his system, stumbles toward the guards to ask for his sword back (which he just sold for more opium). He can suddenly fight like nothing is wrong when they start coming after him, only one bad guy at a time (of course), but conveniently goes back to his drugged up state once the fighting is over. After some begging from Lian and a brief flashback to his killing sprees in the Middle East, Jacob’s guilt wins out and he becomes their escort on their journey…somewhere.
They come across a burning village where they rescue Xiaoli (Coco Wang), never to mention her again. But this rescue allows Jacob to show off some literally impossible bow and arrow skills that impress Zhao. He demands Jacob teaches him, and there’s a cute parallel between Jacob teaching Zhao and a series of flashbacks of Gallain teaching a young Jacob (William Herbert) the battle skills he has now. Yes, young Jacob has the same bad hair as old Jacob. Also during their journey are some weird chats between Jacob and Lian, usually alone and around a fire, and there is definitely some sexual tension there. The biggest problem is that anything romantic between the two actors is not believable for even a second.
So this whole time they’ve been traveling through dense forest, then suddenly they are in the middle of the dessert. I don’t know how much time passed between scenes or if the filmmakers are just really bad at geography, but a brief chunk of the film happens in the middle of the dessert. Jacob gets poisoned by a woman in a caravan they travel with, but manages to escape and fend off a literal army while Zhao and Lian can try to escape. And – let me mention – they escape across a RIVER after being in the dessert to start running up a densely forested mountain on the other side. Yeah.
We finally find Gallain, very drunk and missing an eye, hiding out in these mountains with his mute wife and a band of bandits. Jacob and Gallain have their moment of reckoning shortly before Shing finds out where they are and comes to kill Zhao. The bandits do their best to fend off Shing and the army, but literally all of them die. Gallain snaps after he witnesses his wife die, and fights off a very unrealistic amount of soldiers before dying himself. Jacob fights Shing to defend Zhao, and after being shot by a few arrows to give Shing the upper hand, Jacob still manages to kill him. Not before Lian is also injured, and the two of them share a breathy, meant-to-be romantic moment before they die.
EXCEPT SOMEHOW THEY BOTH LIVE. The film literally ends with Zhao and Lian making it to their destination and Jacob riding AWAY from them for no reason whatsoever.
I realize my thoughts may seem scattered, but I promise you, the movie is actually this scattered! I really have so much to say about this film and so little space to say it in. I tried to fit a lot of my points in the “top impressions” below, but let me go ahead and share my favorite bit of trivia about this movie. According to IMDb (disclaimer – I have been unable to verify this elsewhere), this film was actually BANNED in Hong Kong because the White Savior trope is SO BAD in this film. I honestly didn’t even think about that when I watched the film, I was offended enough by so many other things! Please feel free to talk to me about this movie if you want to know more of why I hate/love it, there are so many points I’ve had to cut out.
My top 3 musical impressions are:
- The score completely wallpapers the entire film. Seriously, the whole film has music or sound effects going constantly, there’s never a break. I can’t imagine how difficult this was for the composer, Guillaume Roussel, because each cue has to change style and emotion many different times. Having lots of great music in a bad film can help elevate it, but this score is fairly generic and – in my opinion – wallpapering is never a good idea. There’s no auditory rest for the audience: there’s so much information to process while watching that it becomes impossible to avoid mentally glazing over everything.
- There are a crazy amount of different ethnic instruments and sounds throughout the score. Using ethnic instruments is a great idea to place the audience in the correct time period or geographical location, but I actually think Roussel went overboard in this score. There are different ethnic winds, strings, and voices for the portions of the film in the Middle East, in the Far East, and in the weird excursion to the dessert. It would be more unifying to either select sounds from one culture or select one sound from each culture. Also, in the credits, the orchestral musicians are all given credit, which is great. But there is no recognition for anyone who may have played the ethnic instruments, or anyone who sung in the choir or the solo lines. Sometimes you can find good samples for ethnic winds and strings, but if they were played and sung live, it’s weird and wrong that those musicians don’t also receive the proper credit.
- There’s really nothing to unify the score. I was able to identify one theme, but it isn’t used enough to really reinforce the fact that it is the main theme. I think the score suffers from both the nonstop usage throughout the film and the indecision on the ethnic sounds used. The result is a jumbled mess that has a massive scope and includes everything from large choir to generic action music to emotional string orchestra to sprinkled ethnic moments. It’s way, way, way too much. I had to literally rewind the film more than once just to attempt to process all of the information coming at me from the screen and the speakers. The score could have benefited greatly from setting limits on instrumentation and being allowed to breathe once in a while.
My top 3 film impressions are:
- What. The. Hell. Is going on with the accents in this movie? Are they all supposed to be British? There are so many different variations on attempted accents going on in this film; it’s really actually very bizarre. I would love to name someone as “the worst” at their fake accent, but they’re just all pretty bad. Also we’re going to conveniently gloss over the fact that Jacob and Gallain, presumably English characters, are able to travel throughout the Middle East and the Far East in the 12th CENTURY and magically understand everyone? And they’re all doing the same fake English accent? I know movies are usually terrible at glossing over what would be linguistic issues in real life, but come on.
- There are a lot of really stupid moments or tricks that should have been cut. Or an entire character. Seriously, there has NEVER been a more pointless character than Xiaoli. Everyone just forgets about her after she’s rescued, including the audience. There are just a handful of weird camera tricks during the film that I really hated; including a camera at the bottom of a bucket that Jacob dumps on his head. It’s annoying and distracting that this was included – and why? It’s not like it adds anything at all to the film. So many of Shing’s scenes are so short and so unnecessary. I honestly believe his training scene is included just so they could get a shirtless fighting moment in the film. And why does Gallain have a snake for like 5 minutes, never to return again or be mentioned at all? Too many things that make no sense, and unfortunately too many for me to list them all here.
- If you’ve ever dreamed of being an actor but there are so many films out there with amazing performances that get you down about your acting abilities, this is the film for you. It will never cease to amaze me that anyone hired Hayden Christensen in the first place, and that somehow Nicolas Cage is still making movies. To be fair, the writing and the dialogue in this film are also pretty horrible. But seriously, when will people learn? Nicolas literally looks like he’s just holding his “missing eye” closed the entire time we see him as the disgruntled, drunkard “white ghost” hiding in the mountains. And anyone who’s seen the Star Wars prequels knows that Hayden just can’t act/talk like he’s in pain, or have a romantic scene without seeming extremely creepy.
Not even mentioned yet are other things like continuity errors; they plague pretty much every movie, but somehow they’re so much more noticeable if the movie is bad to begin with. My personal favorite moment is when, after we’ve already seen Zhao and Lian’s horse die and Jacob has his moment where he decides to help them, the next scene shows them riding 3 horses! There’s no convenient way to explain how they could have possibly gotten these extra horses, they just have them now.
If you watch this movie, you will absolutely be disappointed. It is absolutely terrible and it is absolutely a waste of your time. But I still think it’s absolutely worth it. It’s the best bad movie I’ve ever seen, and the perfect film to watch as a joke with a group of drunk friends.