Petr Jakl writes and directs "Medieval", a new historical action-drama billed as the most expensive Czech Republic film ever made. In it, Ben Foster plays Jan Zizka, a Hussite general and Czech national hero who is considered one of the greatest military leaders and tacticians of his day. "Medieval" tells Zizka's story prior to his time as a renowned leader of a peasant revolt against a coalition of corrupt Catholic crusaders during the Bohemian Wars of the early 15th century.
Right off the bat, "Medieval" sits us down in a historically and dramatically rich time period. It might help to at least have a passing knowledge of the period's background, because outside of some very brief opening narration, the movie doesn't do much past some surface level setup. Just knowing a little bit of the history adds a layer of context that helps the movie and more specifically the characters. To no surprise, the film takes many liberties. Still, a quick gander at Wikipedia might come in handy.
Jakl opens his film in 1402 with Europe already plunged into chaos. It's a time of war, plague and famine as powerful men with their lusts for sovereignty lead a land ruled by lawlessness and oppression. It's believed that only the coronation of a new Holy Roman Emperor can restore the rule of law. But the Catholic Church is bitterly divided into two factions, each under the leadership of a rival pope. And both sides are determined to have their say on who is chosen as the next emperor.
It's in this political and hierarchical powder keg that we meet Zizka, who Foster plays as the proverbial stoic man of few words. Jan and his band of loyal mercenaries do an assortment of odd (and aggressively violent) jobs for well-paying dignitaries including the entirely fictional Lord Boresh (Michael Caine). But Jan soon finds himself caught in a chess match between two feuding monarchs, the Bohemian King Wenceslas IV (Karel Roden) and his ambitious half-brother King Sigismund of Hungary (Matthew Goode).
Things heat up when Boresh, a Wenceslas loyalist, approaches Jan and his men about kidnapping Lady Katherine (Sophie Lowe). She's the fiance of a powerful and devious nobleman, Lord Rosenberg (Til Schweiger) who's in cahoots with Sigismund. Against his better judgment, Jan agrees. But the act sets off a bloody chain of events with consequences he never anticipated. And while Sigismund's brute-for-hire Torak (Roland Moller) savagely combs the countryside in search of Jan, he gives the naive Lady Katherine a first-hand look at her future husband's cruelty.
Aside from its healthy buffet of political posturing, double-dealing, and betrayal, the movie offers a steady diet of medieval hack-and-slash violence. Much of the film's hefty budget can been seen in the combat which is often fierce and quite brutal. And even more money is visible in the locations, costumes, and production design which vividly re-creates this harsh and relentless period.
Yet while the movie looks great, feels authentic, and is punctuated by some intense well-shot action, it feels like there's something missing. Even with its compelling setting and story arc, "Medieval" never quite kicks into a higher gear. It's not bad by any stretch, it simply lacks distinction. It's as if it's missing that one ingredient that would set it apart from the countless other action period pieces of its kind. So you could say its glaringly generic title is fitting.
Part of the problem may be the film's stone-faced protagonist. I get stoicism and how it's meant to play in a story like this one. But it's hard to mine any feeling out of Foster's character. He gives us someone clearly burdened, but everything with Jan is so internalized. He's haunted by dreams of a past trauma. He's troubled by the consequences his actions have on others. But it's hard to find any other emotions in Foster's performance. It really stands out in the later scenes with Jan and Katherine. We're supposed to believe a relationship forms, but Jan is so icy cold that it's hard to find any warmth between them.
As we plow through the doldrums of the post-summer dumping ground, theaters are looking for a little push (just last weekend they re-released "Spider-Man: No Way Home" with a few minutes of extra footage in hopes of bringing in some needed dollars). "Medieval" is hardly the kind of movie to give them the boost they need. Still, amid the beards, blood and grime is a solid blend of history and genre.
82 Cast: Ben Foster, Sophie Lowe, Michael Caine, Til Schweiger, Matthew Goode, William Moseley, Roland Moller, Karel Roden, Werner Daehn, Vinzenz Kiefer, Alistair Brammer, Magnus Samuelsson, Christopher Rygh, Guy Roberts, David Bowles, Jennifer Armour
Director: Petr Jakl
Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes