Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Cinemasochism: TALES OF AN ANCIENT EMPIRE (2010)

I would be the world’s worst banker ever.  How so? I would continue to issue credit to folks who screw up over and over.  Case in point: director Albert Pyun. He has made only two movies I would consider great (THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER [1982] and NEMESIS [1992]) and had a prolific period of entertaining b-films (1989-1994).  Starting with the horrific NEMESIS 2 (1995), however, Pyun decided to do the cinematic limbo and see how low he could go.  Virtually everything since then (save MEAN GUNS and OMEGA DOOM, both 1997) has been mind-blowingly awful.

Yet I stuck with the man based on two great films. “This next one will be the one where he gets his mojo back,” I kept saying to myself.  Countless Eastern Europe lensed action pictures starring rappers later and it was actually getting worse.  Then I saw INVASION (aka INFECTION), his one take alien invasion flick shot from a dash cam of a police cruiser. Seriously, that is an amazing idea.  With visions of the car driving over infected alien folks and smashing into things in my head, I was brought back to reality with a film that featuring nothing but a shot of the car driving over and over the same locations while a girl cried on the soundtrack. I officially tapped out in December 2007 and issued an A.P.B. (Albert Pyun Ban) in my vicinity.

“Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in.” – Michael Corleone

So leave it to Pyun to announce he is doing a sequel to one of his classics after I wave the surrender flag.  THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER was Pyun’s first feature and also his most successful.  Released in the magical year of 1982 when the world was caught up in sword & sorcery frenzy (and beating CONAN THE BARBARIAN to theaters by a few weeks), the film went on to gross close to $40 million domestically.  Not bad for a neophyte director.  The tale of Talon (Lee Horsley) and his three-blade sword, SORCERER holds up to this day with great action and a bold sense of style.  If anything could kick start Pyun’s flatlined career, it would be returning to his roots…or maybe not.  Completed after years of delays and self non-distribution (a story unto itself), the sequel TALES OF AN ANCIENT EMPIRE finally saw legit release overseas and I was “lucky” enough to get the DVD from Thailand.

The film opens with text and images filling the audience in on the back story of half-sisters Princess Tanis (Melissa Ordway) and servant girl Kara (Victoria Maurette). Both were sired by the same father (presumably Talon), with Tanis’ mother being the Queen of Abelar and Kara’s mother being vampire sorceress Xia.  Dude gets around.  Now hold onto your hats as the film then opens with the ending of Kara being vanquished by a mysterious hooded man and then a “three weeks earlier” graphic.  The film proper starts with some treasure seekers opening the tomb of vampire queen Xia (Whitney Able), who quickly bites them all and then unleashes her newfound army on the capital of Abelar.  During the assault on the castle (all done off screen), Queen Ma’at (Jennifer Siebel Newsom), Tanis’ sister, breaks the news to Tanis about her real father (nice timing) and says she must travel to the outlaw city of Douras to find him so he can save the kingdom.  She hands her a scroll that will explain it all and a necklace her relative will also wear.  Meanwhile, slave girl Kara is trying to escape with guard Dernier. They are in love or something as evidenced by this head-scratcher he tells her: “My master is the son of a race.  But there is always a need for pretty servants and there is one against me as well.”  To paraphrase the great Jack Burton, I don’t even know what the hell that means!

Tanis gets away on a CGI boat (truly a sight to behold) but Xia causes it to explode.  She then informs Kara of her true nature and sends her on a mission to make sure the princess whose boat she just blew up is dead.  Why? Because “she will know and trust you when she is most vulnerable” (remember that line). Tanis did indeed survive as she washes ashore near Douras (that was easy) and heads into this wretched hive of scum and villainy. You know it is a rough town when she sees a guy getting punched in a corner.  Have you ever seen such cruelty?  She walks into the first bar she sees and, of course, finds her half-brother Aedan (Kevin Sorbo) cheating a hulking brute (ex-NFLer Matthew Willig). They get out of this conundrum with a few slices of their blades and she tells him she needs her help.  Of course, Han Solo, er, Aedan wants to know if there is a bounty and suggests they conscript their imprisoned half-sister Malia (Sarah Ann Schultz).  What?

So they get Malia out of jail (by talking) and Tanis breaks it all down.  Seems Xia will continue to kill until the next full moon when she will open the doorway to the Netherworld. This means an end to the human race.  After Aedan and Malia try to con her, they agree to help locate their father and Malia suggests half-sister Rajan (Janelle Giumarra) in the nearby Chiba village might know where he is. WHAT?  Another half-sister!?!  Daddy was a playa!  They quickly enlist drunkard Rajan as she craves more adventure and she demands they bring along her daughter Alana (Inbar Lavi). Are you still with me?  I need at this point to keep up.  So they head to Nobu village to locate their father, who is now apparently a fisherman.  All the while Kara has observed them from a distance while snarling and biting folks every now and then.  She informs Xia of the Nobu trip and they decide to abduct each family member when they are isolated.

Once in Nobu, the group wanders around and each one gets picked up by the vamps.  Tanis goes into a bar and sees randy old man (Lee Horesley, SORCERER’s Talon but not playing him here) surrounded by young girls before she is captured by Xia and Kara by walking into a hallway.  Hey, what happened to that whole “she will know and trust you when she is vulnerable” swerve they were planning?  Kara, who has suddenly become the boss, has a verbal confrontation with a man in a black cloak at the bar.  We then cut to the end with Kara having all the family members bound on a hill and demanding the father show up.  Is that, like, every episode of Maury?  She tortures Aedan a bit to make the father appear, which he does with his triple sword and he is the guy in the black cloak.  He kills the vampires and makes Kara vaporize before a “tales will continue” card pops up.  The end!

Where do I begin with this film?  I’ll start with the positives. First, it isn’t boring. Pyun has been guilty of making some excruciatingly dull flicks in the past 15 years so at least he didn’t do that. Second, all of the actors are actually pretty good.  Sorbo is very witty and his likable performance actually deserves to be in a better film.  The real surprise here is Victoria Maurette, who is quite good as the vampire slave-turned-boss. She also supplies the film’s only nudity.  The film’s digital photography is nice as well and there is some good use of color.  There is also…oh crap…that’s it for the good stuff, so now onto the bad. I’m not sure what the budget was on this thing (reportedly $1 million) but I have no idea where they spent it.  Pyun shoots on two sets and it is embarrassing.  The queen’s palace is literally three drapes hung on a wall!  This results in lots of medium shots and close up so we can’t see the sets.  I’m not kidding – I’ve seen porn films with better production values.  Get a load of the CGI in this sumbitch.  It is so bad that it looks like a Sega CD game circa 1991.  Don’t believe me?  Look at these pictures of the boat:

Second, this isn’t a movie, it is a short!  I had to laugh when the action comes to a sudden halt at 68 minutes in.  There is then a post-film tease of the sequel RED MOON and credits crawl that lasts 17 minutes to bring the film up to an acceptable feature length running time of 85 minutes.

And not only is the film a huge tease, but it is a bad one at that.  Would you believe me if I told you there wasn’t a single sword fight in this?  There isn’t. The fighting highlight is a guy getting part of his tongue cut off in a bar brawl (where it is eaten by one of Pyun’s beloved dogs). Yes, a sword & sorcery flick with no swordplay.  The fact that any level of sorcery (vampires staring at a glowing orb) makes it into the film might have just been an accident.  The script is so convoluted and messed up that I had to go through it a second time just to make sure everything made sense.  It makes the first ten minutes of HIGHLANDER II (1991) seem positively lucid in comparison.  If you are sequelizing your biggest hit (and fan favorite), at least attempt to do it right.  Why on earth would you do it so cheaply?  And why make it such an indecipherable mess in the plot department?  It is a total disservice to the original and only helps to further sully your reputation as an incompetent filmmaker (which Pyun is clearly not in some rare cases).

In his extended case of hucksterism, Pyun offered the DVD on his site for pre-order but then cancelled them all for fears of piracy.  I’m “thankful” he sold it overseas so I could see it and give the world a warning about how terrible this is. Lucas may have killed your childhood with the STAR WARS prequels, but Pyun has dug up your childhood’s corpse with this cash-grab sequel and pissed on it. He is now telling fans online that the U.S. version of TALES will be a different edit and feature a new 5 minute prologue that will explain everything about the father, who will be portrayed by a huge action star.  Val Kilmer? Christopher Lambert (who was advertised on posters)?  I’m sure it will be someone looking for a paycheck with little shame.  I have to laugh at the insane idea that somehow an additional back story scene will smooth out all the wrinkles in this mofo.  The only scheme crazier would be shooting a pseudo-sequel to STREETS OF FIRE (1984).  Oh, shit…Pyun did that too?  Damn.  Let me know when that hits video.

UPDATE: As you can see from the comments below, Pyun took our comments about TALES with good humor.  So much so that he gave us the background on the making of this project.  You can read about that at the Tales about TALES OF AN ANCIENT EMPIRE posting from January 2012.

4 Reactions:

  1. Wow! Thanks for hanging in with me even as I slid into the filmmaking abyss! For me, the APB was making Ticker. That was two companies - Nu Image and Artisan - leaving me rotting in some distribution back alley after that horrible abortion of a mess. I liked your comments on the weird, out before its ready Thai version. The reason it got to the Thai company is a very scary sordid tale. But Newmarket Films is acquiring th North american rights and are pumping more dinero in to correct some (but not all) the glaring problems. The first 5 minutes will be new and all sword fight - and the end has much more sword fighting. As with many of my films the funds for the movie never quite materialized and hence the staggering amount of cheats plus only 10 days of shooting, hence the severe running time cut. Problems are being addressed right now. Hopefully you'll lift the APB one last time to see this US version.

    Albert Pyun
    K Mart Director
    Albert Pyun Movies / Facebook

  2. Wow again! Should I feel honored or scared that you found our little blog? Thanks for the words and actually reading it. Any chance you know when this new version will be out via Newmarket? And, more importantly, what can you tell us about the anticipated COOL AIR?

  3. Hi William,

    You should definitely feel scared-lol. Hopeful your discussing Tales doesn't impact your readership downward. I know my movies can have that effect. The US version should be out by next April. We are delivering it next month. Cool Air is finished and being readied for a VOD release any week now. Again, thank you for the interest and for at least lifting the APB for Tales! I enjoy your site regardless of how you review my movies. I appreciate the honesty.

    Albert Pyun
    Albert Pyun Movies / Facebook.

  4. William,

    Please write to to receive a private link to the first 18 minutes of the Tales of an Ancient Empire Final Cut. I know you'll know within the first couple of minutes if we managed to make a decent movie. We added Michael Pare', Olivier Gruner and Sasha Mitchell into the cast.

    Look forward to your thoughts!

    Albert pyun


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