Riding the coattails of various, mostly smallscreen medieval-combat chronicles, the English-language multinational production “Northmen: A Viking Saga” brings straightforward vigor to an uninventive but diverting tale of Norse warriors shipwrecked on hostile shores. There are no novel slants or plot twists in the script (by Austrian screen/genre-fiction writing duo Bastian Zach and Matthias Bauer) to render this bloody ninth-century adventure truly memorable. But helmer Claudio Fah’s pacey handling, a creditable if not especially starry cast (duly recruited mostly from hit cable skeins), and handsome locations (South Africa primarily filling in for Scotland) make it a respectable B-actioner. Having rolled out in various territories since October 2014, it opens July 31 at Arena Cinema in Los Angeles. U.S. theatrical prospects will be modest, improved upon by Aug. 11 VOD launch and subsequent distribution to other home formats.
A violent squall parts a band of Viking men from their seafaring vessel; those lucky enough to survive find themselves washed onto an unfamiliar coast. We eventually discover that this group led by Asbjorn (Tom Hopper) was banished from home terrain after finding themselves on the wrong side of a royal coup. Their first challenge in this new land is climbing the sheer cliff that separates shoreline from the interior. That perilous exertion occasions the sole notable line (“I’m a warrior, not a climber!”) for Johan Hegg, the gravel-voiced lead singer for the veteran Norse mythology-inspired Swedish death-metal act Amon Amarth, whose character soon departs for Valhalla.
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Once on top, the eight men hardly catch their breath before they’re confronted by armed soldiers on horseback. Though greatly outnumbered, the Vikings prove their mettle by felling nearly all these foes, who it turns out where guarding a wagon. Locked inside is Inghean (Charlie Murphy), a well-dressed young woman with a spitfire temperament. She informs them that they’re on Scottish soil, though it’s not until they find an unlikely ally in arse-kicking “cursed monk” Conall (“True Blood’s” Ryan Kwanten) that they realize she’s the daughter of King Dunchaid (Danny Keogh). The king dispatches a “wolfpack” of his fiercest soldiers to rescue her, little realizing that the scheming siblings in charge (Ed Skrein, Anatole Taubman) instead plan on killing her, thereby aiding their plot to seize the throne.
Thinking to gain a ransom for their captive and buy amnesty at Viking settlements to the south, our protags play cat-and-mouse with their pursuers, aided occasionally by Inghean’s premonitions. (However, her supernatural gifts seldom result in anything more advantageous than a yelped “They’re coming!” just moments before the bad guys attack.) Deaths by sword, ax, crossbow, spear and spike steadily whittle down both sides, and the capably staged violence proves visceral enough to earn “Northmen” its R rating without straying into gratuitous gore-for-gore’s-sake.
After a time there’s a certain monotony to this elemental chase narrative and its frequent bouts of hand-to-hand combat, with routine character writing and pedestrian dialogue providing little relief. But the cast is earnestly committed, and if there are a few too many hokey last-second rescues from certain doom, “Northmen” nevertheless rarely risks curdling into camp.
Tech and design contributions are all solid, topped by English d.p. Lorenzo Senatore’s attractive widescreen lensing of a story that takes place almost entirely outdoors. While the frequently splendid South African locations aren’t always convincing as substitutes, one plot development that might strain geographic belief actually shouldn’t: There really is quicksand in Scotland.