Sometimes life comes together perfectly.
When I took this column on, I didn’t quite know what I was getting into. The big problem with doing Sword & Sorcery movie reviews is that the genre essentially peaked in the 1980s. Yes, since then there have been some movies that are sort of S&S (the execrable Highlander sequels) but really, there have been very few action-based fantasy movies in the past 20 years, compared to that decade. There’s a reason why 4 of my 5 reviews have come from the 1980s. I knew that most Sword & Sorcery movies were old, but I thought there were more new ones than there really are. So, I faced the problem of sticking with old movies that I might judge unfairly due to technical limitations of the time, or shifting into TV and other media, which would clash with my laziness (and no, my lack of updates have been due to moving, having internet issues and working a whole lot, not laziness). When Blockbuster Canada closed down, I went into their closing sale hoping to find some recent Sword & Sorcery films, and after scouring what was left of their stock, I found the 2011 Australian TV movie Sinbad & the Minotaur.
This is the type of movie I’d probably check out whether or not I had to review it, because it gives off the odour of cheap B movie, something I enjoy generally. Upon turning the DVD case around, I saw that it took up half the back cover advertising the two main stars and listing their filmographies. Manu Bennett (Sinbad) has Thirty Days of Night, The Condemned and Spartacus: Blood and Sand to his credit (2 out of 3 good, though he wasn’t the primary star in any of them), and Steven Grimes (the evil sorcerer al-Jibbar) has been in…Scooby Doo and Highlander 2. Yes, I knew I was in for a treat when the film bragged one of its actors was in Highlander 2, the worst movie that doesn’t star transforming alien robots.
Before I get into the movie, I’d like to comment on the racial politics behind the casting choices. Sinbad is perhaps the premier Arabic fictional hero (unlike Ali Baba and Aladdin, he was actually created by Arabs, though he was likely based on a Persian merchant) and there are, frankly, few opportunities available to middle eastern actors. Almost every Arabic character who is mildly sympathetic is played either by a white person (like Arnold Vosloo) or an Israeli (like Oded Fehr…yes I’m picking on the Mummy remake here. Bite me). This type of movie would be a great opportunity to build some goodwill, while giving an opportunity to a group who is lacking right now. However, for the three definitely Arabic characters they cast a mixed European/Maori man (Bennett) a British man (Grives) and a blonde Irish man (Jared Robinson as the part djinn monster Sein). Perhaps they picked the best actor to star, and at least he’s not completely white, but I cannot believe they chose any of these three actors aside from Bennett based on talent. There seems to have been no good reason for not casting someone more ethnically appropriate for at least two of the Arabic roles.
Which brings me to the acting. Oh, Mitra, the acting. Most of the actors put up performances that reminded me of my old Sunday School plays. A particularly awful offender is Lauren Horner (Luna) who, thankfully, hasn’t been in any other movies. Her line delivery literally sounded like she was reading a teleprompter. In fact, all the female actors aside from Holly Brisley (Tara) were an embarrassment to the craft. Given that Ms. Brisley (who was also in Scooby Doo, one of three actors from this film to be in that one) is actually fairly famous in Australia, it’s good she at least tried to act here. As previously stated, the villains performed poorly. Grives is not engaging in the least, and Robinson comes off as a poor excuse for Darth Maul, only much less threatening. Sinbad and his crew was a little more worthwhile, thankfully. Some were clearly superfluous minotaur food, although they tried to pretend that Timos (Brad McMurray, who was also in the Condemned…seeing a pattern yet?) was a character we should care about. Terry Antoniak made Nestor one of the most unwatchably annoying characters I’ve seen recently (to the point that his expository speak actually irritates the other character), but thankfully, he was pushed aside for the Sinbad’s two more charismatic and endearing friends, Karim (played by Pacharo Mzembe) and Akoom (played by Australia’s Strongest Man, Derek Boyer). And Manu Bennett himself was actually pretty cool as Sinbad, probably the brightest spot in this thing. He has enough charm that one could believe that people would flock to him and willingly submit to his command, and though he doesn’t have much depth, that’s almost certainly the script’s fault.
The story is pretty by the books, and quite mythologically inaccurate. I don’t normally mind the odd change, but the minotaur has become ingrained in our popular consciousness, and has never been a giant bull who transforms a village into half human, half bull monsters. It IS a human/bull monster! It would be like if Batman was literally a man with a bat’s body. It just isn’t right. In addition to that, there is one massive plothole. Luna leaves Sinbad’s crew, partly because she’s jealous of Tara and partly because Sinbad hasn’t paid her some money he owes her. When al-Jibbar catches this clearly disgruntled woman, rather than simply help him catch Sinbad (who stole the key to King Minos’ treasure from him) she refuses to tell where Sinbad was heading, even after torture. This makes absolutely no sense, for reasons I hope are obvious to all reading.
However, the worst problem here is that none of the villains are threatening in the least. Al-Jibbar is introduced to us as a “powerful sorcerer” who can’t catch Sinbad while being in the same tent as the thief, who is not capable of being inconspicuous. His ridiculous looking henchman Sein is killed by Sinbad at least twice before being actually killed, and only manages to hurt Sinbad once. Even the Minotaur dies the first time Sinbad meets it (though due to its divine heritage it gets raised again through convoluted means). There’s never a threat to Sinbad at all. His crew is thinned throughout the film, but since they were mostly either useless or annoying, I didn’t care. The only cool character who was actually killed was Akoom, whose death was so ridiculous I couldn’t help but laugh.
It’s actually impossible to give this just one rating, because in addition to being a standalone movie, this was a pilot for a TV series. So, I am giving 2 different ratings to this movie.
As a movie: 3/10. It had a few mildly bright spots, but mostly, this was a forgettable movie, not quite “so bad it’s good” but not Red Sonja level awful either.
As a pilot: 6/10. The bad elements of this thing were all killed, some possible long-term conflict has been set up (specifically Sinbad being in love with Tara yet possibly being more in love with his adventuring lifestyle) and they kept three of the four interesting characters alive. I wasn’t happy with the movie, but I’m sort of interested to see the further adventures of the surviving crew, especially if they replace their fallen with better actors.
If this series is picked up, it could be another Xena, and could be a real success, if they just iron out some of the “details”.