Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Clonin' the Barbarian: BEASTMASTER III: THE EYE OF BRAXUS (1996)

I don’t know whether it’s a curse that was cast upon the genre, but it seems any flick with a sword is doomed to turn out sequels that are determined to kill the franchise. Thanks to John Milius’ firm-footing in the realm of Hemmingway-esque machismo, CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982) was unquestionably the pinnacle of sword flicks. Thanks to Richard Fleischer’s keen insight, the glaring flaw of CONAN was that “it, for the most part, lacked humor. There were some jokes, but too much of the film was unrelieved drama.” Fleischer decided that CONAN would be much better played out as a comedy of sorts and apparently felt that he was instrumental in pushing forward Arnold’s “progress in this art of acting.” For a minute there you might think that this is all a blatant attempt to outright kill the franchise. I mean, it is called CONAN THE DESTROYER (1984) after all. Hell, even Fleischer’s follow-up, RED SONJA (1985), was a damn sight better, if only because the low-rent camp value skyrocketed to all new heights.

Such is the case with say, the BEASTMASTER films. Don Coscarelli’s 1982 film is well crafted in its own right. Then years later part 2 came along with extra doses of comedy and a penchant for filching elements from a little film called HIGHLANDER (1986) – which ironically would have its own doomed series arc. However, I am here to tell you today, that if you think BEASTMASTER 2: THROUGH THE PORTAL OF TIME (1991) was a test of your cinematic mettle, you are grossly mistaken. At least until the TV series came around, this is a rough slog through swordsville that even Joe D’Amato would saw logs through. This is my penance for hogging all the "good" Ator movies, I think.

The film opens with an aging sorcerer Lord Agon (Shakespearian actor David Warner clearly short on coins of the realm) rambling on about King Tal’s medallion, the fabled Eye of Braxus, in a tiny fiberglass cave. Why does he need it? Dunno. What is it? Dunno. But, what we do know is that he does need it and has a plan on how to get it. His cunning plan? The use the legendary Beastmaster to get it from his brother King Tal , who is now… well, sort of grown up. Ok, c’mon now Mr. Lord Agon, I think you’re just making this up as you go.

Dar is still not the sharpest claw in the paw, but he certainly means well. He saves some travelers from a maniacal bandit (Patrick Kilpatrick) and even spares the bandit’s life, and when the bandit looks up in Dar’s eyes and says “who are you?”, you will fully expect Dar to reply “I’m Batman”. Dar’s travelling companions are all the same except now his black tiger that turned into a regular tiger is now a rather tired-looking lion. Why this change was made is even more ludicrous since they actually corrected the error of Dar’s mark appearing on the wrong hand from part 2! Anyway, the travelers are conveniently on their way to see King Tal to request aid against the evil Lord Agon, but fear that the king will not grant them an audience as they have lost their tribute. Dar decides he can help. Yay Dar!

King Tal is now played by pre-steroided Casper Van Dien in hair extensions that are actually better than the peroxided frizz that Singer sported in part 2. Also on hand is the ever loyal Seth (now played by Tony Todd), who seemingly has given up all that righteous fervor and settled into the role of the king’s revenue agent. So Dar, Tal and Seth meet up again and because of this sentimental moment, Tal gives Dar half of the amulet he is wearing, The Eye of Braxus. Half an amulet. Uhhhh… thanks? Proving that living with humans makes you a little quicker in the mental faculties than say, living in a forest with animals, King Tal figures out Lord Argon’s plan immediately... well, immediately after it is pieced together by the peasant standing in front of him without a tribute. He’s going to summon the dark god Braxus and he needs the amulet! I suppose you have to know these things when you are king, you know.

After his hawk Shirak spies the King’s camp in flames, Dar heads back in one of the funniest moments in the film. While picking through the bodies of the dead he finds one woman half conscious and grabs her and shouts “where is my brother?!” while she looks at him as if to say “who the fuck are you?” Dar then finds Seth and they have this exchange:
Dar: “It’s been a long time Seth.”
Seth: “Too long.”
What?! You guys just saw each other earlier that same day! Dar grabs the nearest camel (!?) and sets off to rescue his bro who is being held in a strange organic torture chamber called The Shroud of Agony, that will extract all of his secrets and project them on a screen. Obviously some sort of recording device is present too, since Lord Argon sees no need to actually watch the secrets play out. He simply waves his hand and his assistant wearily says it takes forever. At least we assume he is referring to the machine, it could very well be the movie.

Seems that Lord Argon’s sorcery has aged him greatly and in order to stay youthful he must sacrifice villagers in a device that zaps them with lightning bolts and causes them to disappear into a puff of light. This fiendish plot of Fu Manchu has the upshot of turning Argon’s hair from an Einstein fro’ to something that looks like it would be right at home on Andrew Dice Clay if he decided to go without a haircut for the total time that his career has been dead.

Along the way to Argon’s castle, Dar and Seth team up with a girl (Sandra Hess) whose motives are unclear and whose speech seems to indicate that she may have found that portal to “el aye” at some point. During their trek they run into “savages” who appear to be only slightly less authentic than the ones from CANNIBAL FEROX (1981) and Dar fights them off by simply running at a group of spear-wielding warriors and yelling “Yaaaaaaarrrrr!!” and scattering them like pigeons. Hmmmmm… I don’t know which is worse, the stagey, video under-cranked “action” scenes, or these “let’s not even bother having an action scene” scenes.

Another character that joins the cause include Seth’s ex, a witch named Morgana (Lesley-Anne Down displaying a surprising lack of cleavage) who temporarily turns Dar’s animal friends into cute fuzzy pets, much to his chagrin. Seth is very put out at having Morgana along and accuses her “you turned me into a… rabbit!” To which Morgana coyly replies “only for a little while.” Oh make it stop!! Finally there is Morgana’s persistent, shirtless acrobat boy (Keith Coulouris) who really, really likes Dar and really, really wants to “ride” with him. Uhhhhh… yeah. Is Dar as creeped out by this guy as I am? Dude, get the freakin' hint already. Dar’s not that way… he likes animals! Of course this outing has no bare breasted maidens to be saved, but a rather a bare-chested waifish boy who must be rescued… ummmm… err… not that there is anything wrong with that.

The upshot of their trek through foam caves is that they finally find out what the hell The Eye of Braxus actually is. It is literally, the eye of Braxus, the dark god whose physical manifestation is something that looks like a reject from the Dinosaurs TV show.
Dar: “we’re going to have to use our wits to beat him.”
Bey: “that just happens to be my specialty.”
Are you implying that it is not Dar’s? Compared to Braxus, Dar is a freakin’ brain surgeon as all it takes is bonking him on the head with a stone chandelier (yes, you read that right), Dar ripping the eye off of Braxus’ head and kicking him into the pit to finish off our Dark God of Doomyness. Seriously, that's it. Apparently there was one person who thought that the feeble ending of CONAN THE DESTROYER was ripe for the plucking.

As if that wasn’t enough suffering, they spend the next 15 minutes embraced in a soppy ending that actually attempts to set up the pair of Dar and Seth with the really, extrememly persistant Bey, for further adventures. They must not have watched the rushes. Veteran TV director Gabrielle Beaumont has made a solid career out of directing one or two episodes of every damn TV show you've ever heard of in the past 30 years, and that is exactly the kind of workmanship on display here. Every shot is over-lit, medium to close up, no pans, no cranes, no helicopter shots, nothing but flat and static direction that is perfect for lulling you to sleep. Hell, as much as I am not now, nor have I ever been, a fan of Xena, it sported more style than this uninspired outing. It would take another three years to get the pilot for the TV series off the ground, just in case you were yearning for something even less action packed and a little more sentimental. Oh christ, kill me now.

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