Hiring Kevin Sorbo to be in your swords-and-sorcery movie in 1998 is a bit like hiring William Shatner to be in your space captain movie in 1968. Sorbo was a few seasons into “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” at the time, a show that was vastly better than it had any right to be, thanks to Sam Raimi and pals’ involvement, and despite this being a bit different, I suspect the producers knew what they were doing, hiring the guy who played the long-haired, bare-chested, ass-kicking fantasy hero Hercules to play the long-haired, bare-chested, ass-kicking fantasy hero Kull.
This film had quite the journey to the screen. Robert E Howard is the greatest pulp novelist maybe of them all – in a short life he absolutely hammered out stories and novels, for characters like Conan, John Carter of Mars, Kull, Solomon Kane, and others. The story this movie is based on, “The Hour of the Dragon”, is a Conan story, and was originally intended to be the third Conan movie, but Arnold Schwarzenegger refused; and Sorbo said he didn’t want to step into Arnie’s shoes, and would only do it if they changed the character.
There’s a good god, Valka, and there’s an evil sorceress queen, Akivasha. She was in charge of Acheron, a pretty horrible looking place, until Valka overthrew her and built the kingdom of Valusia on Acheron’s ruins. One eternal flame remains to remind everyone of how bad things used to be, but other than that…things still seem pretty bad if you’re not wealthy, although I suppose you have the benefit of not living in a flame-drenched hell-world. Kull is trying to better his situation by joining the King’s personal guard, but he fails his entrance exam (a huge fight) because he’s not of noble blood (he’s from Atlantis, apparently a no-no). But Kull cares not for such boundaries! The king has gone crazy, killing all his heirs; thanks to some rather poor succession rules, Kull half-accidentally kills the king and then takes the crown himself.
All sorts of people want to see Kull dead – the last remaining heir, the chief of the King’s guards, the Head Priest, but most of all Akivasha, who it turns out was just in a sarcophagus the last couple of thousand years, waiting to be woken up. She turns into Tia Carrere (remember how hard some people tried to make Tia Carrere a thing?), bewitches Kull into marrying her and then poisons him, taking over. Of course, Kull’s not dead and he’s got help from a badass monk and her sister, one of the slaves in the Palace who Kull wanted to free (being a former slave himself, he’s got strong opinions on the subject). They need to get the Power of MacGuffin from a distant island, of course.
You might be forgiven for expecting this to be a double-episode of “Hercules”, in tone and cost, but it’s not. There’s serious money on display here, from the investor who expected this to be an Arnie movie, possibly; there’s big castles and really good-looking set pieces where you can tell they went and filmed there rather than using green-screen (although there’s some green-screen too). There’s tons of extras, and some decent actors dotted about as well – Harvey Fierstein is bizarrely cast as a sleazy fence of stolen goods; Ed Tudor-Pole is fun too; and Karina Lombard is great as the exotic slave/love interest Zareta.
I think if this had been the third Conan film it’d have caused its own problems. Schwarzenegger by the 90s would have wanted it “bigger”, there’d have been A-listers with their own egos involved, and the simplicity and basic fun of what we ended up with would have been lost. It’s just a good, fun adventure, with a decent sense of humour and very little doubt about how things are going to end up. I can’t say anything interesting about these solidly above average movies! You’ll enjoy it, and won’t want to tear your own eyes out after watching it.
Rating: thumbs up