Produced two years ago for German television, this nice-looking two-parter explores elements of the Nibelungen saga peripheral to Wagner’s “Ring” operas, and it ranges from kind of good — along the lines of Robert Halmi Sr.’s older made-for-TV epics — to pretty awful, though sometimes in an entertaining way. Those willing to view the performances and dialogue with a “cut them some slack” attitude will be rewarded with some stylish action sequences, as well as a big, frothy Dark Ages soap opera. Of course, popping in any “Lord of the Rings” DVD would be a perfectly rational alternative.
It’s to the credit of the original myths that every aspect of this story feels familiar, down to muscular star Benno Furmann making like a young Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Conan the Barbarian” and yelling in a Germanic accent, “You killed my father!” Adding to the parallel, “Conan” co-star Max Von Sydow is on hand, bringing a touch of fatherly class to the proceedings.
This barbarian is a prince, separated from his parents when they’re killed during his childhood and he’s cast, Moses-like, into the river. There, he’s found by a kindly blacksmith (Von Sydow), who raises Prince Siegfried as Eric, a brawler whose swordsmanship is unparalleled.
Eric demonstrates his skill by fighting and besting Queen Brunhild (“Terminator 3’s” Kristanna Loken), endowed with divine power by the Valkyrie and committed to wedding only a man who can overcome her in combat. Sworn to Brunhild but separated from her, Eric, now Siegfried, journeys to the kingdom of Burgund, where his broad shoulders catch the eye of Princess Kriemhild (Alicia Witt).
Siegfried also impresses her brother, King Gunther (Samuel West), by slaying a local dragon, in a sequence highly reminiscent of the movie “Dragonslayer” but nevertheless well conceived and executed. In doing so, he wins the treasure of the mystic Nibelungs, unleashing all the jealousy and avarice that the promise of great riches tends to engender.
It’s around here that the saga takes a turn into “The Young, Teutonic and Restless,” as Princess Kriemhild conspires with Gunther’s evil adviser, Hagen (Julian Sands, in Snidely Whiplash makeup), to magically cause Siegfried to fall in love with her. Once smitten, Siegfried becomes drawn into Gunther’s attempts to wed Brunhild, using magic to win her hand.
“Dark Kingdom” drags a bit through these sequences, and some of the dialogue sounds plucked from an old Steve Reeves movie. Still, director Uli Edel remains true to the tragic nature of the myth, and it’s a handsome enough production, shot in South Africa for more than $20 million.
Fans of the genre will go through finding their favorite movie parallels (“Hey, that was in ‘The Vikings!’ “), but setting cynicism aside, it’s a worthy enough exercise in “check your brain at the door” fluff. And on the plus side, nobody needs to fight an icy Norse warrior queen for the privilege of watching it.