Forbidden Empire follows British cartographer Jonathan Green (Jason Flemyng) in the midst of his scientific journey to map out Europe and Asia as he stumbles across a village that’s having… problems. After a recent death things began to go awry and now the entire area may be cursed. Witches, monsters, and a seven horned beast roaming the surrounding swamp land all plague these people and Green gets caught up right in the middle of it all. Even besides this, the people themselves don’t seem to be all there mentally, and things go from bad to worse rather quickly.
The film is a horror comedy with action and adventure elements, and this blend of genres is a bit hit and miss tonally. Things start off promising enough, with a number of entertaining sequences taking place almost back to back. After a sort of cheesy chase with some CGI wolves we get a number of scenes in a church that take on an Evil Dead vibe, minus the gore. This is where things start to really get good and they definitely peak at a certain dinner scene. There are some inventive action set pieces coupled with really cool creature designs and some really great surreal imagery. A lot of this stuff is CGI, and it’s not the best, but there’s a good amount of practical effects here as well. On top of all of this there’s this creepy seven horned monster that keeps showing up in bits and pieces throughout the film. It’s always very brief, popping up in the distance just watching.
By the time the aforementioned dinner scene ended I was totally on board, but unfortunately nothing in the second half of the film ever reaches the same level as these early sections. The plot takes some twists and turns, and if it weren’t for the awesome first half I may not have taken an issue with the direction the film goes. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just that it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Without going too far into spoilers, there are some revelations that don’t really have any impact given some of the information we already know and ultimately it feels like a bit of a let down. Even the seven horned monster is really anticlimactic when you finally get to see it, both in terms of appearance and relevance to the story. It’s just not really all that impressive or important. What this all boils down to is an ending that is inconsistent with the rest of the film both tonally and thematically.
The cast in this is really hard to judge in terms of quality. They seem to be giving it their all, but for the most part the film is in Russian and the version I watched was entirely dubbed in English. This may be personal preference, but dubbing always throws me off because it never feels natural. I’d much rather read the subtitles if it lets me watch the actual performances. Flemyng is likable in the lead, and the villagers tend to ham it up as much as possible, which is fun to watch. The movie is pretty tongue in cheek and a lot of the comedy is physical, which helps to get past the distracting dubbing. The few scenes that are in English naturally serve as bookending segments featuring Green’s would-be wife and her father, played by Tywin Lannister himself, Charles Dance. He plays the same grumpy character he usually plays and in general these segments serve to offer almost nothing to the plot. The film could have easily gotten by without them.
One thing that I do have to give Oleg Stepchenko in the director’s chair is that the film looks really good. You can tell that some money was put into the production and it payed off. The cinematography isn’t mind blowing, but everything is shot well and overall it’s a slick looking movie. The production design is all on point as well. The village sets are incredibly dark and dingy. Everything feels constantly wet and swampy, and it’s easy to tell that this place has fallen on some hard times. The costumes are great for the most part. I wasn’t totally on board with the goofy wig that Green wears through a lot of the movie at first, but it does set up a nice contrast between him and the more down trodden townsfolk that he spends the bulk of the film with.
At the end of the day, Forbidden Empire is a mixed bag. There’s a lot to like, but unfortunately it’s really inconsistent and most of the best stuff is jammed into the first half. The dubbed dialogue is distracting, but the physical performances are fun to watch. The sets, costumes, and monsters all look really good, and everything is directed fairly well, but tonally it’s kind of all over the place. Still, even when it doesn’t quite work it’s still pretty fun. I’d recommend it, just temper your expectations a bit and it’s worth a watch.
WICKED RATING: [usr 5]
Director(s): Oleg Stepchenko
Writer(s): Nikolai Gogol (story), Aleksandr Karpov, Oleg Stepchenko
Stars: Jason Flemyng, Andrey Smolyakov, Aleksey Chadov
Release: May 22, 2015
Studio/Production Co: Russian Film Group, Marins Group Entertainment
Language: Russian, English
Length: 146 minutes
Sub-Genre: Dark Fantasy