KULL THE CONQUEROR
Welcome to the unlegendary journeys.
Directed by John Nicolella
Written by Charles Edward Pogue
With Kevin Sorbo (Kull), Karina Lombard (Zareta), Gary "Litefoot" Davis (Ascalante), Harvey Fierstein (Juba), Sven Ole-Thorson (King Borna), Thomas Ian Griffith (Taligaro), Edward Tudor-Pole (Enaros), and Tia Carerre (Akivasha)
Spoiler alert: moderate
It was never supposed to be like this. The dream of Conan the Barbarian's director, John Milius, and its producer, Dino De Laurentiis, was always a trilogy of Conan films, and this trilogy would end by telling the tale promised by Mako Iwamatsu's narrator at the end of the first one—of the Cimmerian's usurpation of the throne of Aquilonia, and all the hardships his hard-won crown imposed. But in 1997, no less than in 1985—when De Laurentiis was only barely able to persuade Barbarian's star to play a thinly-veiled Conan stand-in, the warrior-priest Kalidor, in Red Sonja—Arnold Schwarzenegger simply had no interest in reprising his role as the sword-swinging northman of Robert Howard's stories.
And so, when DDL's daughter Raffaela (a co-producer on both Barbarian and Destroyer) came around to finally adapting the first (and last) full-length Conan novel, The Hour of the Dragon, she had no choice but to bow to reality, and recast her lead. In so doing, she quickly realized that they no longer had Conan. (Indeed, this was even pointed out by her new Conan, Kevin Sorbo—whose biggest claim to fame remains being the lead of a television series outperformed by its own spin-off, and who, wisely enough, had no desire whatsoever to be compared directly to one of the biggest names in the business.)
But luckily (or not), Howard had more barbarians than just Conan in his legendarium. Screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue, working on an age-old draft, saw fit to dust off the original model, namely Kull—the warrior, thief, pirate and king whose story couldn't be sold to the pulp magazines until Howard punched it up, moved its action a thousand years forward in time, and renamed its hero "Conan."
And so the circle was closed, with Kull the Conqueror. It begins, as all Howard-adapted films must, with a scene-setting dump of exposition, though the franchise has never, ever done a poorer job—not even in Sonja, where nobody so much as bothered hiring a narrator in the first place. In fact, Kull itself would've been better off if they hadn't, for its opening text crawl gets narrated like it was "Deep Thoughts" by Jack Handey, in all its monotone and distanced bemusement—except "Deep Thoughts," you know, was supposed to be funny. In any event, we are welcomed back to antiquity yet again, and with even more made-up words than the first three times. So, even longer ago than we're used to (before the oceans drank Atlantis, that is), there was an evil kingdom, called Acheron, but when Acheron fell, it was replaced by the more typically-shitty faux-medieval kingdom of Valusia.
This brings us to the "present," where we find our hero engaged in a competition to find new warriors for the king's legion. To this end, Kull is met in a duel by the legion's commander, Lord Taligaro, who condescends to Kull's Atlantean ancestry while making the hugest possible deal out of his own noble lineage, in a way seemingly calculated to instantly lower the tone of the film, from the high adventure captured by Barbarian, where the power was in your steel, not in your name, to that of any old lazy fantasy novel. Not that it matters all that much, because when Taligaro is called back to the palace to put a stop to the king's butchering of his own heirs, Kull shrugs and follows along. Kull winds up in single combat with the mad king, which goes about as well for the king as you might expect. But the monarch's dying wish is to pass the crown to his new heir, the very man who slew him—Kull.
This brings Kull's first act to a close—if you can call ten minutes a "first act"—and thus our first impression of Kull is that, all in all, it is complete bullshit. Its first ten minutes appear like nothing so much as an entire movie's worth of plot, smashed into the fewest scenes and actions they could manage. It serves to put Kull on the throne in the dumbest, most thoughtless way possible (and all so he can be pretty much immediately deposed). And it's as clumsy as anything you could imagine (the half-naked barbarian just kind of walks into the palace?). But then, it's part and parcel to this screenplay's single least attractive quality: its constant, awkward implication of a backstory that it has neither the inclination to actually explain, nor the coherence to profitably absorb. That's how Kull can be both an uncultured thug, and the king's old drinking-buddy, depending entirely upon which lines of dialogue you go by. The only interesting thing to come out of the first ten minutes of Kull at all is that the role of King Borna allows old Sven Ole-Thorson to make his obligatory appearance in a Robert Howard adaptation—meaning that, with Kull, the Danish strongman we first met as one of Thulsa Doom's key henchmen made it four for four. Well, good for him.
Anyway, then: as soon as Kull is coronated, he begins to romance the choicest of Borna's harem wenches, Zareta, mainly by insisting that he would never command a woman's affections without her consent; and, for his next act of good-natured liberalism, Kull starts pissing off the powers-that-be with loose talk of ending slavery and establishing freedom of worship throughout Valusia. Before you can say, "long-form birth certificate," those powers turn to the burned wizard, Enaros, who has his own designs to bring back the being he considers the most legitimate contender for the throne: the demon-goddess Akivasha, once the queen of Acheron. Her corpse reanimated, she marches herself down to the palace, where she puts Kull under her spell. They move from their first meeting to marriage in the space of a heartbeat (in this motion picture's sole solid piece of film editing), but, on their wedding night, she pretends to assassinate him with magic—however, because he is Kull and hence very Manly and Handsome, she actually only kidnaps him, offering him immortality in exchange for his sexual services. Oddly enough, he declines. The spell thus broken, Kull kills an ape-monster and escapes his evil bride's clutches, fleeing off onto a quest alongside Zareta and her priestly brother Ascalante, hoping to find the icy "breath of Valka"—the only thing that can extinguish the flame of Acheron that gives Akivasha her power.
Her eyes are up there, divine one.
One is inclined to be charitable to B-projects such as Kull, and so one is not prepared to be angry at it for failing to resolve its plot in the easiest and most effective way it could, with the popular new king simply reappearing in his kingdom and having his enemies arrested. Instead, the thing that really makes you mad at Kull is that it just plain sucks.
The pace of thing seems perpetually stuck in wheel-spinning mode for around a full hour of its 96 minute runtime; and when it tries to compensate for its boring story with a surfeit of badly-choreographed action, you realize that director John Nicolella tends to rely upon editing gaffes and outright continuity errors in order to keep events moving forward toward his film's foreordained conclusion. (And so we have at least two moments in Kull where characters are trapped, and can't escape, and Nicolella simply cuts to them safe and out of danger, without any concrete indication of how they actually made it out. But then again, in Kull, overturned coals set sand on fire; so perhaps one shouldn't be surprised to discover that anything goes in Kull's world.) Now, let's be fair: the last half hour has its moments—the film picks up around the time that Kull, on the run, seeks the aid of his clearly-trustworthy old friend Juba—but getting to the "good parts" is a slog, and even once you do get there, at its best Kull is merely fine. At its worst, however, it is laughably bad. (But if we're being honest, the best moments of the movie are laughably bad ones—especially that one unforgettable moment, where Akivasha pushes a flunky off a cliff, and, as he tumbles down, he literally explodes, like he landed on his gas tank.)
Kull is basically a TV movie (not even a "TV movie writ large"), and this goes well beyond the simple fact that Sorbo leads the cast—in fact, Sorbo is one of the few nice things about it. Indeed, the fellow has a certain chummy magnetism; God alone knows how this would've played if his character had been named "Conan," but I'll admit that he is a pretty solid "Kull"—but that's assuming, of course, that you don't mind that the hero of your fantasy film easily could've been referred to, in-movie, as "dude," and it wouldn't have felt the slightest bit wrong.
On the other hand, Sorbo doesn't have to do very much to stand out as competent here—not when the majority of his supporting cast proves themselves capable of reading their lines, and precisely nothing else. Of his various scene partners, only Harvey Fierstein, invigorating the scummy Juba with his glorious rasp, essays anything really capable. Meanwhile, I'll happily concede that Tia Carrere, as Akivasha, is sure as hell doing more than just reading her lines—why, she's also wearing one exasperatingly bad red wig. But let's give her some qualified praise: her commitment to the bit isn't nothing, especially considering the shockingly awful lines that Kull's script deigns to give her—including a straight-up theft from The Empire Strikes Back, of all the fucking things! Yet the actor absolutely drowns in her own abortive attempt at high-pitched camp; and the only reason I hesitate to invoke the specter of Rita Repulsa here is because I think it might be racist.
Anyway, a TV movie I said, but let's clarify: Kull is a TV movie from the 90s, which is largely synonymous with "looking like complete ass." The production and costume design, the usual standbys in any Conan film (or, indeed, any De Laurentiis film) is quotidian here to the point of outright mediocrity. (The only exception is Valka's icebound shrine, littered with the flash-frozen corpses of those who'd come before; it's actually a pretty swell piece of design-on-a-budget, and stands out terribly amidst Kull's array of boring torchlit chambers.) As for the blunt-force editing—that I've already covered. But the hallmark of any barbarian film, awesome ultraviolence? It's practically an afterthought in Kull. Meanwhile, sexuality gets its nod, in the form of Sorbo's occasional shirtlessness, alongside women shot from the waist up, in medium shots, with scandalously bare upper backs.
Last, and definitely least, there is Kull's cheap, cheap, cheap CGI—so bad it almost makes Escape From L.A. look accomplished. Fire, being the sigil of Acheron, is everywhere in Kull; and, of course, it is uniformly represented by some of the worst CG flames of the whole decade (no low bar, that). As a result, half the movie looks like a defunct Geocities site; and as for Kull's final setpiece, a magical war waged between a fire-demon and ice magic, that would have barely passed muster for a Nintendo 64 release, let alone a theatrical one.
"1997" is stamped onto Kull's every frame, then, but not even due to the crapulence of its visual effects alone. Oh, no: to our indictment, we must add the gall of its score, by Joel Goldsmith (Jerry's son, though one would not be surprised to learn he was adopted). Kull has the decency to let you know what you're getting into early, when the sub-Metallica of this fantasy movie's electric guitar-soaked soundscape starts wailing over the credits. Its asinine conflation of metal with metal alternates, curiously enough, with some frankly good Poledouris riffs (a little too overtly choral, but rather fine all the same). And while the ungainly dissonance of the rock music perhaps grants Kull something of its own personality—unserious and lame, but its own—one would nonetheless prefer the opera to the mosh pit, at least in the case of one's Goddamned Robert Howard adaptation.
It is trash, all told, and if Kull the Conqueror was the best they could do with them, then it is terrifyingly easy to see why the De Laurentiises finally let the worlds of Robert Howard go. But then, that doesn't mean there still wasn't a little bit of room left at the bottom—for a real Conan movie, that turned out to be even worse.