Originally envisioned as a third movie in the Conan franchise, Conan the Conqueror, this movie takes another of Robert Howard's creations and drops him into the middle of the story. This is a movie that was filled with great potential yet fell flat. If one squints really hard, one can almost see the gem that this could have been.
The story itself, originally written for Arnold Schwarzenegger, reads like a fairly straightforward Conan film. Indeed, much as people may pan Kull, this movie is still better than the mess that was Conan the Destroyer. Sorbo's Kull fights with the forces of General Taligaro's army, hoping to win a place amongst them. He fails, and is taunted for being a barbarian of low birth. In comes a runner, proclaiming that the king is slaughtering is heirs and all rush back to the castle where... Kull lays hands on the King, strikes him down in single combat, and (while the surviving heirs fight over the crown) is given the throne by the dying king.
Yeah, there are a few issues with that scene. Seriously, no one rushed to aid their king as a lowborn barbarian was trying to kill him? That sticks out as wholly unbelievable. Where are the king's guards to protect him against this assassin? Still,
We are treated to Kull's chivalrous treatment of the slaves of the harem, bowing to them, and stating that no woman will be taken against their will. While this is a really refreshing reversal of the standard Sword & Sorcery Trope that women in the background are there simply to be abused and raped, it comes off flat and forced. Perhaps just deeds instead of words could have gotten the point across less awkwardly.
Among the harem is Zareta, harem slave and seer, she had once read Kull's fortune, telling him that a kiss lay between he and his throne. They kiss, then Kull goes off to sleep alone. Soon, Kull discovers that being king is not all that he thought it to be. The old laws are carved in stone and the chief eunuch, Tu, is determined that Kull should get things right. Among Kull's new duties is to choose a queen.
Enter Akivasha, the long dead witch queen of Acheron, recently revived and seeking to return "modern day" Valusia to the dark ages of an Acheron reborn. She bewitches Kull, who chooses her for his bride. On their wedding night, she seemingly kills him, blasting fire into his mouth while they kiss in bed. A funeral is held, and Akivasha takes up the reins of power with the two former heirs to the throne close by her side.
But Kull finds himself alive, but imprisoned, at the new Queen's pleasure. As one might expect, the evil Queen has fallen for Kull and offers him immortality while ruling the world at her side. He refuses and she orders his death, this time for real. She leaves, forces close in, and Kull escapes. Joining up with Zareta and her brother, the priest Ascalante, they flee Valusia and join with Kull's former companions, a group of pirates.
There is a great deal of potential here. The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982) used a similar plot device to great effect, teaming up the hero with a band of loyal pirates. It was fun, lively, and exactly NOT what happens here. Disappointingly, Kull's old companions betray him and plot to sell him to Akivasha (although how they would know that the evil witch queen is searching for her escaped, declared dead, husband. This was a real missed opportunity to take something that had previously been done well, and to do it better. Falling flat shouldn't have been an option.
From here on out, the film just flat-lines. The movie is never horrible, it just becomes a string of missed opportunities, as Kull and his companions seek out the mystical breath of Varna, and take it back to destroy the queen and regain the throne. The end of the movie blurs into a lackluster performance by Akivasha (pouted by Tia Carrere and the not-horribly choreographed fight to the death between Kull and General Taligaro.
What about Conan?
Truly, of all the missed opportunities in this film, the absence of Schwarzenegger's Conan is chief amongst them. The general line is that he had declined to reprise his role. More likely is the fact that he was paid $25 million for his appearance in Batman & Robin. When one considers that the entire budget for Kull was in the neighborhood of $30 million, money is probably the reason that Schwarzenegger didn't return. But what if he had?
Reportedly, screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue was very unhappy with the amount of studio interference in the movie. With no major star at the helm (sorry K Sorbo), the studio most likely continued to cut budgets and make decisions to curb spending while, in theory, boosting box office. A prime example of this would be the movie's soundtrack, a hybrid of Sword & Sorcery orchestral music and heavy metal. The movie was even advertised with the slogan "Kull Rocks!"
Still, had Schwarzenegger returned to play Conan, the script gives us a good enough idea of what this movie would've been like. There would've been a lead swinging a real sword (Kevin Sorbo injured himself on a blunted stunt blade in rehearsals and used a rubber sword for the movie), with a believable barbarian delivery. Sorry, Kull is too pretty and well spoken for a barbarian. Still, the groundwork for what could have been is there if one looks. This movie could've been great.
In the last Conan-ish outing, there was an evil lesbian queen spurned by Red Sonja. In this one, it is the proto-Conan who spurns the advances of the evil queen. Apparently, evil queens are prone to becoming hot and bothered over protagonists and will risk everything if spurned. Quite the solid safety tip.
What didn't stink?
To be fair, quite a bit. While overall reviews of this movie are uniformly negative, it really isn't as bad as all that. The movie is simply frustrating because it could have been so much more, and it is obvious. In addition, the soundtrack is actually quite decent (and available for sale on Amazon).
This movie is much less than it could have been. The casting of TV's Hercules as Kull certainly didn't give it the lift that they had hoped. While dropping a known face in the lead works for many movies, Schwarzenegger was virtually unknown when cast as Conan and it worked...because they cast a character, not a name-brand. Certainly, this movie was never able to live up to potential and, sadly, not even expectations. Still, it is a fairly middle of the road outing, three stars.
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