Well this my first attempt at doing a very European film. Northmen: A Viking Saga is the latest film from the Swiss Director Claudio Fah who has previously directed the Billy Zane disaster Sniper Reloaded. I still had high hopes for this film though because the previews for it looked good. My first exposure to this film was last year at the Wacken Open Air Festival in Germany where the film was being heavily promoted. The film received a large amount of screenings across Europe last Autumn around October/November time and I was expecting that it would receive a Cinema Release in the States in March and the UK would get screenings in the Spring. However, that didn’t materialise for one reason or another so the film went straight to DVD. Nevertheless, Viking movies have been rather lacking in recent memory so I was hoping to be impressed because I really do like Vikings along with their Mythology and Culture.
The plot of “Northmen: A Viking Saga” is that a group of banished Vikings, led by warrior Asbjorn (played by Tom Hooper) have washed ashore on the coast of Scotland. They really get into trouble with the local Clan Kings guards, who see them as invaders and upon killing the group the soldiers take his Daughter as hostage, Lady Inghean (played by Charlie Murphy). This obviously doesn’t go down well with King Dunchaid, (played by Danny Keogh) and he sends his top elite mercenaries, the Wolf Brigade, led by brothers Hjorr, (played by Ed Skrein) and Bovarr, (played by Antole Taubman). The Vikings must now make their way across country to ransom off the King’s daughter, however the mercenaries have other ideas, planning to kill them all and use it as a way to convince other Clans to overthrow the King.
There is a very good reason this movie has gone straight to DVD in both the USA and the UK, it’s very by the numbers and has a feeling of, ‘been there, done that’ and that is not necessarily a bad thing. A lot of people said that Zach Sneider’s film Sucker Punch was the worlds longest My Chemical Romance video, well, this film is the worlds longest Amon Amarth music video, which is to be expected, considering that Johan Hegg, the lead singer of Amon Amarth is actually in the film. The film does a good job of taking characters that you wouldn’t normally like, but then by the end of the film makes you root for them and there’s an excellent slow progression to this which completely pays off by the end of the film. The characters don’t just range from bad ass Vikings, the mercenaries feel relatively threatening villains, but they don’t learn from the Vikings tactics that well so as a result they can come across as slightly incompetent. There is also the bitter monk, Conall, played by Ryan Kwanten of True Blood fame and he is an amazing bad ass character who eventually joins the side of the Vikings, initially in order to stay alive, but he slowly builds up a connection with the Vikings that is very believable. These characters though are fairly generic, there’s the love interest, the eponymous hero and the villains who are villains for the sake of being villains, because evil. You are not getting anything deep, though that is not always necessary and Northmen gives a real feel of a lot of 80’s and 90’s action movies. Most of the characters come off pretty well, with the exception of Jorund, (played by Leo Gregory) who is really annoying and keeps repeating the same lines of dialogue throughout most of the early part of the film, he is eventually redeemed as a character by the end, but it’s all a case of ‘too little, too late’!! You rarely hear these characters names so you actually just learn them from their type. There’s The Leader, The Archer, The Madman with the Axe, The Guy from Amon Amarth, The Idiot who uses Knives, The Bad Ass Monk, The Princess and the two guys leading The Wolf Brigade. I barely knew what these characters names were, I got their personalities down pretty well, but their names really escaped me and as a result I actually had to look up their names on the actual film’s website, I didn’t even go to the IMDB page that much because the actors are so un-recognisable from their IMDB pictures which is a great achievement for their make-up department. As I said, these characters are characters that you will root for. For one thing, they don’t constantly go on that they are absolutely bad asses who can take down anyone at anytime, they actually back up those brief statements and most of the time it is shown in their actions. You also feel some of the camaraderie that is brought upon these guys by the difficult situation. As an action film, this is usually enough and I would say that for a lot of people this will fly, especially if they enjoy Vikings. You feel that people who have a lot of love and respect for Viking Mythology have made this film, but it’s not entirely perfect. There is a lot of plot conveniences and a couple of the characters don’t get much development or the development feels very forced. As I said before It almost feels like a film which would have felt a lot better in the 80’s. I got a lot of flashbacks to Conan the Barbarian and even a couple of flashbacks to Frank Miller’s 300 and I would definitely recommend it to people who enjoyed both of those films. Where Northmen gets it right, where its contemporaries Viking films have failed is that it doesn’t take itself overly seriously like other Viking films have, such as the confusing mess that was ‘Vallhaller Rising’. The only major problem with this plot is that the environment is not fleshed out enough and these characters are not fleshed out enough. We don’t find out that much about the characters banishment apart from a few throw away lines of dialogue and the biggest amount of back story goes to the Monk, granted, it’s a very good back story, if a bit stock, but it’s not too much to the films detriment and it’s another case where reviewing the film makes my opinions a lot harsher than they are, I’m not saying this plot was bad, far from it, I found myself fairly entertained, but I’m glad the film was only 1 and half hours as oppose to 2 hours because I think the film would have had to padd out it’s running time significantly in order to keep it going. So overall it was a decent plot with pretty good characters, even if it felt like I had already seen it before!!
Northmen: A Viking Saga has a very good cast, but if you went into this film, like me, hoping to see a lot of Johan Hegg from Amon Amarth ‘kicking arse’, then sadly you are going to be disappointed. He is only in the film for about 5 minutes and is basically a glorified cameo! Tom Hopper takes up his first major leading role in this film and while I think his role was pretty good, I don’t think this role showcases him brilliantly and if you are wondering who he is, he is basically the actor who plays Sir Percival in the BBC Merlin series, Billy Bones in Black Sails and played the character Jeff in the first episode of Matt Smith’s era of Dr Who. He does pretty well in this role, and takes to the action very well. I don’t think he sell the ‘bad ass’ quality that a lot of his counter parts do. The rest of the Vikings are respectively played by Ken Duken, Darrel D’Silva, James Norton and Mark Strepan, and despite the fact that their roles are relatively small, they do pretty good with the material they have to work with, even if a couple of them are relatively under-used, in fact I think there may have been a couple of them I may have actually missed off that list that had even smaller roles. Charlie Murphy does an ok job, but I think she needed better direction, she doesn’t really have chemistry with Tom Hopper and I get a sense that the Director really should have worked a lot better with her. Ryan Kwanten stole the show for me as the Monk Conall, he really takes the action scenes pretty well and does a fine job, but I get the sense that at times he felt he was in a more serious film that he actually is in. In fact that’s a claim that can be said for a lot of the cast. I’ve already outlined my thoughts on Leo Gregory’s character issues, but I think they are more writing issues because I think the actor does a pretty decent job with the material he has to work with. The only actor who seems to ham up his role at times is Darrel D’Silva, and you can really tell he is having a blast with this role, this is a guy that really sells it, that when he knocks a mercenary off a cliff, instead of just falling with him, he stabs him on the way down, now that is bad ass!! The main villains played by Ed Skrein and Anatole Taubman, are pretty decent at playing basic villains and again I think their performances may not be great but I do think this is some issue with the direction that was given to them and Danny Keogh despite doing some good facial acting isn’t really in the film enough to get a hold on his acting ability. The cast as a whole is actually pretty good and work very well with each other. I just think they could have used a better direction.
Now the visuals. This is where Northmen really excels itself. I would have loved to have been the location manager on this film because the locations are gorgeous and the cinematography really excels. I’m pretty sure none of the environment involved green screen effects and if they do, they were blended in seamlessly. The environments gives a barren feel, they were never near that many fortresses or castles, we’re stuck most of the time on the moors and the dales and the environment feels very organic, it really sells the film and the camera men and the lighting men do an excellent job in bringing this environment to life. The film’s major fault is when it tries to use CGI, this is obviously a low budget film so the CGI is not great and it’s where the films at its weakest point, but if they couldn’t really afford to use CGI, they hardly could have afforded to do great practical effects either and most of those are saved for the fight scenes. While we are on it, the fight scenes are actually pretty good, they are not great by any means and they vary in quality usually in mid scene but when they are good, they are very good. There is not lot of blood and guts, however, and I think that was to get a PG13 rating for its release in the States. The actors seem to be doing most of the stunt work themselves and the stunt work is also good, it’s another really strong point of the film. The film has a low budget, but it knows how to work with tht budget in order to deliver a film worthy of it’s audience. I watched the DVD version for this film, it is available on Blu Ray, but only as an import, though most of the imports are from Germany so it will work on your Blu Ray player and I would advise you to do so if you have the opportunity.
Is Northmen: A Viking Saga a perfect film? Far from it. It’s rather generic, it has a feel of ‘been there, done that’ and probably would have fit better in the 80’s and there’s a couple of day for night shots that really weren’t brilliant executed. As it stands it’s an ok film, I actually kind of enjoyed it and my review probably makes my views on this film sound harsher than it really is . The film has excellent visuals, cool fight scenes and while the characters may be a bit one dimensional, they are at least enjoyable to be around, with a couple of exceptions. It doesn’t have a lot of depth to it but it’s a decent film to have on a Friday night as a rental with a group of friends and a few beers. Other than that, you can’t really go that much further with this film, but I would hardly say I disliked it by any means and if you are a fan of Vikings you should take some interest in this film.
Have you seen Northmen? Did you enjoy it? Do you think I have been too lean with it? I personally feel that a few of the reviews of this film that I have seen on line have been a bit too harsh on the film. I would love to get your comments, and if you want, answer my question for this week, which is:
Is there a really good viking film that I have missed?
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Time to move on to my next movie. It’s another sequel. Join me on 10 July where I will be reviewing “Terminator Genisys”, which has the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger to the franchise.
Thanks for reading my first review back, I hope you have enjoyed reading it as much as I have enjoyed writing it.
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