BLOGS

<i>Season of the Witch</i>: A Buddy Cop Picture Stuck in the Dark Ages

Today is Nicolas Cage's birthday. It's also the day the first mainstream release of 2011 comes out, which just so happens to be Cage's first attempt at playing a character who didn't live during the industrial age. Fans of Cage's famous (on-screen) freak-outs will probably cackle with glee at the thought of him throwing one in a castle courtyard (think Ray Liotta as a wizard in In the Name of the King), but I'm happy to see his overly serious delivery placed in a context where it actually makes sense, something we got to see a little bit of in last year's Sorcerer's Apprentice. Granted, serious Cage isn't as fun as manic Cage, but in Season of the Witch, he gets to act noble in a time when nobility actually meant something, and it's okay for him to act holier-than-thou when he has a big fricking cross on his chest. He probably should have done one of these movies years ago, because Season is better than a significant portion of his recent output. That's not saying much, but it certainly says something.

Cage plays Beyman, a Crusader who, along with his pal and drinking buddy Felson (Ron Perlman) is part of an army of knights who sweep through the Middle East killing the crap out of everyone who lives there. Beyman eventually realizes what they're doing is evil, so he and Felson desert and head for home. Along the way, they realize that, in the years they've been gone, a plague has started wiping out the population. When they're recognized as knights -- and therefore deserters? Not sure how that follows -- while passing through a city, they're drafted by the town's dying cardinal (played by Christopher Lee) to transport a witch, supposedly the source of the plague, to a remote abbey for trial and execution. A motley band of travelers is gathered, a route is plotted, and of course that's when bad stuff starts to happen to people. The witch herself (Claire Foy) occasionally tries to convince Beyman she's an innocent victim, but the movie never allows you to believe it for very long, because every 15-20 minutes she says something really suspicious or simply manhandles her jailers like a rabid wolverine.

Aside from the occasional teenage-girl ass-kicking, there isn't that much action in the movie, really -- there's a lot of hazards on the trip, including witchingly summoned wolves and a Rickety Bridge (TM and copyright every movie ever), but very little real fighting in between the opening war scenes and the final showdown. Since Cage is in full-on chivalry mode through the entire movie, with only one manic moment to speak of, it's left to the interactions of the supporting cast to keep the movie from being too dull. Perlman is occasionally hysterical, cracking jokes and making sarcastic comments that remind me, fondly, of the intentionally anachronistic A Knight's Tale -- so does the purveyor of rare antiquities (Stephen Graham, Boardwalk Empire's Al Capone) who is enlisted as their guide. Even the suspiciously fervent priest (Stephen Campbell Moore, The Bank Job) gets a good laugh for his Jaws-inspired punchline: "We're going to need more holy water." We don't get to know any of the characters very well -- not even Beyman -- but we at least get a sense of who they are as people, which is more than you can say for a lot of movies these days.

I guess that's small praise, but I want to give the movie credit where it's due. It's dark and formulaic and not particularly scary, but the tension is kept pretty high, Cage is a solid center, there are some amusing supporting performances, and there are plenty of beautiful shots of the local scenery. ...Of course, there are also a lot of close-ups of plague victims, which are pretty nauseating, but I guess I'd prefer to focus on the positives. And since the movie was directed by Dominic Sena, who brought us Whiteout, Gone in 60 Seconds and Swordfish, any positives are a good thing. So, basically, it could have been worse. Much, much worse.

Did you see Season of the Witch? Let us know what you thought below, then read our interview with Ron Perlman and check out Nic Cage's witch-hunting tips!

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