A one-trick pony that rapidly wears out the considerable welcome of its first reel, “Valhalla Rising” is a grunge-and-gore Viking movie that, like its characters, spends most of its time going round in circles. Hopes that Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn would translate his passion for myth into a Viking epic worthy of the name are dashed by a script that’s virtually devoid of plot and character development; the helmer’s rep (the “Pusher” trilogy, “Bronson”) will nudge the pic along the fest circuit, but most auds will find it a one-note turnoff, signaling B.O. more Nibelheim than Valhalla.
Movie opens like gangbusters, in full John Milius mode, with a storming intertitle — “In the beginning there was only man and nature. Then men came bearing crosses and drove the heathen to the ends of the earth” — whose promise is quickly fulfilled by a sequence of mano-a-mano fights to the death on a wild and woolly mountainside.
The chief protag is a mute, heavily scarred warrior, dubbed “One-Eye” (Mads Mikkelsen, “Casino Royale”), who, like Conan in his early days, is kept in a cage like an animal and only brought out to fight for money, by his Scottish owner, Barde (Alexander Morton). The most info ever imparted about him is that he came from across the ocean (presumably Scandinavia), from an equally violent past that’s glimpsed throughout in One-Eye’s blood-red memory flashes.
After fulfilling the prophecy that “he’s never belonged to anyone for more than five years” by slaughtering his captors and disemboweling his owner, One-Eye sets off for home with a young boy (Maarten Stevenson), who acts as his voice. En route, however, they fall in with a handful of Christian Vikings who are planning to sail to Jerusalem to conquer the Holy Land. With the voyage and its surprising aftermath, the pic sails off into an unreal, almost fantastic world that seems dramatically at odds with the hyper-realism of the opening.
That would be fine if Refn showed any genuine feel for myth or heroism. But his idea of the latter seems to be outbreaks of slaughter, separated by endless thousand-yard stares by Mikkelsen and the rest of the cast. And his idea of fantasy — perhaps dictated by shortage of coin — seems to be one small boat in a foggy studio tank that makes Italo sword-and-sandal movies of the ’60s look big-budget.
With very little dialogue, and even less plot, five chapter stops lend the movie a skeletal structure: “Wrath,” “Silent Warrior,” “Men of God,” “The Holy Land” and “Hell.” But any discussion of the Dark Ages conflict between paganism and Christianity is reduced to just grunts or insults.
The mute Mikkelsen cuts a fine figure in widescreen as the Man With No Name but Loads of Attitude. As the boy who speaks for him, Stevenson probably has the most dialogue, but delivers it without feeling. Other roles, mostly played by Scots, have few distinguishing features beyond brutality and plug-ugliness.
Deliberately color-drained DV lensing is cold even in the pic’s few sunny sequences, and acts as a further monotonous damper on the film. Drone-metal synth soundtrack has all the subtlety of an ax splitting a skull.