Friday, April 18, 2014

Flesh + Blood

Arrangements have finally been completed with the Pentagon for my Middle Eastern USO tour. I'm so excited at the prospect of entertaining our young men and women in Iraq and I'm sure Vicki Lester is Shocking Awful will be the absolute highlight of their tour of duty. A C-130 cargo plane arrives at LAX to carry me, cartloads of costumes hurriedly run up by Bob Mackie, and a plethora of props off to Baghdad where we'll open this next week for the 101st airborne Screaming Eagles.

The show has been put together rather rapidly, so I'm not altogether sure of what numbers I'll be doing. We have to work some of the details out on the flight. Rob Marshall is coming along to stage the whole thing; I think it's rather dear of him even though he did pass me over for that twig, Renee Zellweger in his film version of Chicago. I know we're going to open with an absolutely knockout rendition of Onward Christian Soldiers with me in glittering white sateen. We then segue into our salute to Fox News, They Call the Wind Moronic.

In preparation for being a part of the social scene in Baghdad, I decided I'd better view a film dedicated to pillage, slaughter, and general lawless mayhem. I couldn't find my copy of Hello, Dolly! so I settled for Paul Verhoeven's first Hollywood film, Flesh + Blood from 1985 which reteamed him with his Dutch star, Rutger Hauer and then ingĂ©nue, Jennifer Jason Leigh. This film, despite some heavy promotion, was not a success. Verhoeven redeemed himself several years later with Robocop but Hauer started on a long slide towards straight-to-video stardom from which his career never fully recovered.

Flesh+Blood takes place, a title tells us, in 1501; although the costumes and sets are a hodgepodge of Renaissance Faire looks ranging from the 12th through the 16th centuries. A nameless walled city is under siege by the lord Arnolfini (Fernando Hilbeck). He apparently ruled it once, and then was thrown out; he's such a caricature of a thug, it's not surprising that the town wanted a regime change. Arnolfini has hired a company of mercenaries, led by Martin (Rutger Hauer), to aid him in his quest; he promises them a chance to loot the town if they are victorious. They, of course, are but Arnolfini reneges on his promise and Martin leads his merry band away, vowing revenge.

Meanwhile, Arnolfini has dynastic ambitions involving his bookish son, Stephen (Tom Burlinson). Stephen's mail order bride, Agnes (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is on her way with her retinue and an enormous dowry. Martin and his mercenaries intercept Agnes's caravan, ravish her, carry her off to a castle (which they sack) and set themselves up as 'nobles', attempting to ape their betters with the spoils of Agnes's dowry. Stephen decides to come to the rescue of his betrothed, aided by Hawkwood (Jack Thompson), his father's former general who has retired from military life to play house with a head injured nun (don't ask). As Stephen attempts to take back the castle and rescue Agnes, she is forced into a dangerous position of choosing between him and Martin, much to the consternation of Martin's previous girlfriend, Celine (Susan Tyrrel).

Verhoeven made his name in the 1970s and early 80s in Dutch films with such titles as Soldier of Orange, Spetters, and especially The Fourth Man - developing a bit of a Hitchcockian sensibility but showing all the perverse desires of human nature that Hitchcock sublimated into the subtext. Along the way, he made stars of Rutger Hauer and Jeroen Krabbe, working with both of them frequently. It's easy to see what attracted him to this project. It allowed him to explore the baser human instincts, throw in plenty of carnage and sexual exploitation, and round it all out with dollops of perverse humor. Unfortunately, while all the ingredients were there which made successes of his later American films such as Total Recall and Basic Instinct, they just didn't gel in this strangely illogical film.

It's not very well written. (Screenplay by Verhoeven and frequent collaborator Gerard Soteman). The basic plot is lifted from Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida (where it doesn't work either) and can't make up its mind if it's supposed to be a glorification of war and pillage or a condemnation. The film also gets caught up in a number of primitive technology set pieces, especially a siege engine that looks like the unholy progeny of Monty Python and the Holy Grail's large wooden rabbit and Hook and Ladder Company #38. Then there's the lightning strike that seems to have wandered in from Bride of Frankenstein. There are some smaller well staged fight scenes, such as a battle around a bathtub, but they're so overshadowed by the silliness in the big scenes, one tends to overlook them.

The international cast includes a lot of very good actors, but all performing in a polyglot of accents and acting styles. Spaniard Hilbeck is paired with Australians Burlinson and Thompson while the supporting cast of mercenaries is from all over the map. This is not necessarily a weakness as European society of that era was highly mobile, but when the fair princess sounds like a Valley girl, you have some trouble. There is some wicked humor in the types present in the mercenary company including a rather bizarre priest (Raiders of the Lost Ark's Ronald Lacey) and a rather odd gay couple in doublet and hose (Simon Andreu and Bruno Kirby, of all people).

The film is, at times, extremely violent and revels in the gore. There is also a high level of rape and sexual violence that may discomfit some people. It's probably true to the times, but it's uncomfortable to watch.

Verhoeven has made much better films in his day. Try this if you're a completist, otherwise, settle for something else.

Rolling bombs. Exploding bombs. Exploding bombardiers. Buried statue. Infant funeral. Mandrake eating. Bubonic plague. Dead dog pieces. Gratuitous meadow romp. Gratuitous bathtub romp. Red velveteen. Naked Jennifer Jason Leigh. Nearly naked Rutger Hauer. Ominous water pitchers.

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