‘Medieval’ review: The muddled story of a 15th-century hero

A popular 15th-century Czech folk hero, Jan Zizka stands in the nation’s collective consciousness, a skilled, brilliant, one-eyed warrior who led peasants and rebels in battles he never lost. One of the world’s largest bronze equestrian statues was erected in his honor in Prague, and now ‘Medieval’, the most expensive Czech film ever made, chronicles his early years with dedicated actor Ben Foster role of Zizka.

“Medieval” was written and directed by Czech filmmaker, actor and stuntman Petr Jákl, who also represented the country in judo at the 2000 Olympic Games. The story comes in part from his father, Petr Jákl Sr., another Olympic judoka, and it’s clear they both have an enormous reverence for the man, his mission and his brutal, gory reputation. If there’s anything to commend about the gritty bloody “Medieval” it’s the daring, no-holds-barred stunt work, the fights and some spectacular underwater sequences.

This is the third directorial work for Jákl, whose second film “Ghoul” was the highest-grossing horror film in Czech history. He brings that macabre touch to this tale of medieval warfare, following the path paved by Game of Thrones and The Last Duel, which plunged the audience into hyper-realistic and utterly brutal battle scenes. Foster, who tends to disappear into his roles, approaches the bloodshed and Jan’s emotional journey with his trademark ferocity.

The legendary Michael Caine, who plays a character named Lord Boresh, takes us to the kingdom of Bohemia at the turn of the 15th century where chaos reigns and it requires several frames of on-screen text and a voice-over to get us into the to bring up to date. In essence, the plague has thrown Europe and the Catholic Church into chaos, and there are two popes: one in Rome and one in France. Benevolent Bohemian King Wenceslaus IV (Karel Roden) is trying to get to Rome to be crowned King of the Empire despite his debts holding him back while his scheming brother King Sigismund of Hungary (Matthew Goode) plots behind his back to to steal the throne.

Boresh hires Jan as a mercenary to kidnap Lady Katherine (Sophie Lowe), the fiancée of Lord Rosenberg (Til Schweiger), an ally of Sigismund. Katherine is also the niece of the King of France. It’s a bit of political gimmick, and the rest of the film unfolds as a series of ambushes and double-crosses, mercenaries and peasants fighting to gain control of Katherine, who falls in love with her kidnapper Jan and his honor.

They are both deeply religious people, and Jan teaches Katherine to use her own agency. It’s clear that Jákl wants “Medievel” to be some kind of Czech “Braveheart”, but the political machinations are so confused that there is no clear goal. It’s taking a little too long for the script to get “free”, presumably because of the whole woman kidnapping thing.

“Medieval” is a film with an identity crisis, caught between its simple sword-and-spatter charm and larger ambitions. A fast and dirty 90-minute corker, it could have been a nice and nasty bit of genre filmmaking, but Jákl strives for something a little more epic in scope, and the film drags, easily 30 minutes too long. Not even the electrifying Foster is enough to breathe some life into this tale of court intrigue and the resulting clash of warriors. Lowe tries to get things straight, but she doesn’t get enough to do.

The clarity of the message gets bogged down hopelessly in the internal conflicts of all players, the script is utterly muddled, although the essence of the film is just a bunch of guys killing each other in the woods while two brothers argue over who should be king . Exactly what Jan is fighting for feels horribly unclear, despite vague aphorisms like “honour, justice, liberty, faith, hope” being chanted in the final few frames. We have to take their word for it.

Katie Walsh is a film critic for the Tribune News Service.


Rated: R, for consistently strong and gruesomely violent content and some nudity

Duration: 2 hours, 6 minutes

To play: Launches September 9th in general release

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-09-08/review-medieval-czech-ben-foster-michael-caine ‘Medieval’ review: The muddled story of a 15th-century hero

Sarah Ridley

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