Culled from Robert E. Howard pulps of the 1930s, “Kull the Conqueror” is a less commercially brawny screen translation of his work than the earlier “Conan,” also from the De Laurentiis production team. There is nothing egregiously clubfooted about this mix of fantasy, flexing and sorcery. But despite the presence of state-of-the-art technical wizardry and more manifestly sexual content, there’s a creakiness to the material and a familiarity to such TV skeins as “Hercules” and “Xena” that work against its wholehearted acceptance. Theatrical prospects are just OK, while ancillaries should ultimately draw in a greater percentage of pic’s core audience.
The script airbrushes out many of the title character’s more unsavory elements. Though he’s still called a crude barbarian, Kull (Kevin Sorbo) has had his edges smoothed, one assumes through travel rather than combat. He also emerges as a diplomat and democrat.
Seeking to become part of the elite guard of mythical King Borna of Valusia, the pic’s hero passes the physical but is rebuffed by the king’s commander, Taligaro (Thomas Ian Griffith), as unworthy because of his lowly caste. Fate then intercedes when the contest is interrupted by news of the monarch’s demented fury, which has left the castle floors awash with the blood of his heirs. While the pretenders to the throne line up, Kull attempts to quell Borna’s anger, but the king makes the mistake of provoking the muscleman into a swordfight; with his last mad gasp, the dying ruler bequeaths his kingdom to the barbarian.
Uneasy lies his crown, as Taligaro and others form an unholy alliance to cut short the reign of a man who would free the slaves and improve life for the ordinary man and woman. With the aid of a magician, the 3,000-year-old evil spirit Akivasha (Tia Carrere) is recalled to life as a comely seductress. She bewitches the warrior king and on their wedding night presumably kills him with a kiss of fire.
But Akivasha, unbeknownst to her cohorts, gave him only a low-voltage smooch — just enough to knock him out cold. When he awakes and rejects her offer of eternal bliss and power, the battle between good and evil finally gets serious.
In addition to Kull, the good guys consist of Zareta (Karina Lombard), a slave seer, and her brother Ascalante (Litefoot), a priest of an offshoot religious sect. In order to win the day, they must kill everybody, and while most opponents are vulnerable to steel, the only weapon that works against Akivasha is the “breath of Valka.” Any child will tell you that finding the latter means traveling to some remote corner of the world and vanquishing all manner of beastie along the route.
Effects wizard Ray Harryhausen pretty much wrote the book on this form of screen story with “The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad” and “Jason and the Argonauts.” Four decades later, pictures in the genre are still judged by those standards and tend to fall short of the dash and imagination of the earlier entries. “Kull the Conqueror” is no more than a well-crafted, diverting romp, with a pinch of spice in the forthright sexuality of Carrere’s and Lombard’s roles.
The elements that give the film its reasonable entertainment quotient are also responsible for limiting its spirit; a quality of reverence and respect for the past keeps the film on track but imbues it with a 1950s sensibility. The addition of a rock score, enhanced special effects and more explicit dialogue does almost nothing to provide a contempo feeling.
Sorbo has the warrior shtick down cold, and Griffith is a slick adversary. Yet there’s a soulless quality to the well-coifed, predictable performances. The women fare considerably better, and the supporting cast adds color. Harvey Fierstein as a businessman-pirate is an inspired piece of casting that’s largely squandered in an ill-defined role.
Vet TV helmer John Nicolella acquits himself well with his bigscreen debut. He gives an authority to Charles Edward Pogue’s workmanlike script and never lets the pace lag. Tech credits are strong overall, with the production design by Benjamin Fernandez a standout and the use of Slovakian and Croatian locations quite distinctive.