This movie was so thoroughly murdered by the critics, that I was not expecting much - but to my great surprise I spend a very pleasant cinema moment!
As you probably already know the main plot is about two former crusaders, a noble knight Behmen (Nicholas Cage) and a simple warrior Felson (Ron Pearlman), who, after running in trouble with the Church, are pardoned but asked to perform one more service - escort an alleged witch, a young girl named Anna (Claire Foy) to the remote abbey where she can be tried. The journey begins in what seems to be western Austria and is quite long and dangerous as the travelers must cross the Alps and some particularly wild forests to reach the abbey of Severac which seems to be somewhere in northern Switzerland or southern Alsace.
The reason for this journey is that the whole country is stricken by an incredibly deadly epidemic - in fact it is the beginning of THE Black Death of 1348-52, which was going ultimately to kill half of the population of the whole Europe! The cardinal d'Ambroise (Christopher Lee) who sends the two ex-crusaders in this mission is himself dying of plague. The Church considers Anna responsible for the epidemic, as she was seen around most of the places where the disease began - she also is supernaturally strong and speaks often in tongues nobody have ever heard off. The Church hopes that the monks of Severac, who own a large collection of secret books advising how to remove curses and expel demons, will be able to deprive the witch of her power and put an end to the plague, which is every day killing hundreds of people.
Behmen and Felson will not go alone - they are joined by a young Inquisitor, father Debelzaq (Stephen Campbell Moore), a local knight Eckhart (Ulrich Thomsen) who lost his wife and children to the plague and a swindler and thief, Hagamar (Stephen Graham) who knows well the way to Severac and for this reason is pardoned and send on the quest. The group will be joined later by a young altar boy Kay (Robert Sheehan), who, being of noble birth prefers to become a warrior rather than to be a seminarist. Once the group is complete, the quest can begin...
There are many reasons why I liked this movie and one of them is that it really reminded me of some good moments I spend playing Dungeons and Dragons! The group of adventurers seems coming straight from an ADD adventure - there is a Paladin (Behmen), three Warriors (Felson, Eckhart and Kay), one Priest (Debelzaq) and one Thief (Hagamar). The whole quest combines a good mixture of wilderness, city and underground (dungeon) adventures and there is a good deal of hazards, riddles, black magic and even some monsters... And the whole thing is very professionally mixed, with some nasty surprises and not silly at all!
Nicholas Cage is a very good actor (he however sometimes plays in very bad movies) and he did very well in this one. Stephen Campbell Moore is also very convincing as Inquisitor father Debelzaq, but the best performances were those of Ron Pearlman, Claire Foy and the young Robert Sheehan. The atmosphere in places like a plague stricken medieval burg, the high Alps, the dark Wormwood Forest (by the way, Wormwood is also the name of the star which will fall on Earth during the Apocalypse...) and finally the dungeons of Severac was very well made!
One of the things that I liked the most was the appearance of people in the towns - although the streets were muddy and dirty and people wore practical sturdy and not very colorful clothes (the best clothes being reserved for Sunday or other special days), they did not have dirty faces and they did not look retarded or sick (except of course those who were stricken by the Black Death). I really do not know why so many directors consider that every person in a medieval town must have a dirty face and/or a look like he/she was issued from ten generations of consanguinity! Dominic Sena escaped this trap with grace and the result is quite credible.
Another thing which I liked was the approach of the Church and especially the character of the priest Debelzaq. In a lesser movie the political correctness would ask that he be the main scoundrel and the real villain - in this movie things are much much much more complicated and the final solution of the movie is a very unexpected one. For sure, the horror of witches hunt is not blunted in this movie (although in real history the real epidemic of witch hunt took place AFTER the Middle Age was over, in XVI and XVII century!) and there is one scene of execution of an innocent young woman which is absolutely horrible - but the other face of the Church is also shown in this movie, by the devotion of cardinal d'Abroise and also many others priests and monks who try to do their duty in the time of unprecedented cataclysm without any regard for their own safety and until their last breath.
Last but not least - the ending of the movie is quite good - I was moved by it and I really did not expect it happen, when going to see it. Which is even more surprising, my wife was moved by it too - and she is not anywhere as forgiving (or as much into fantastic adventures) as I am...
Now of course it is only a movie without much more ambition than to distract, so one should not try to see too much in it and it is certain that in this film Christianity itself is shown as a kind of more organized witchcraft, which is ludicrous as Jesus himself strictly forbid to play with magic as a blasphemy against the first commandment and warned that any people who claim having some kind of "powers" are just charlatans. The scene in which a Catholic priest performs a kind of weird ritual to make certain that a hanged and drowned witch will not raise from the dead is perfectly ridicule and a horrible blasphemy! Any Inquisitor playing this kind of esoteric nonsense would find himself in serious risk of prosecution for heresy!
Also, be advised that most of the the battles mentioned in the beginning of the movie are pure invention! There never was a siege of Tripoli in 1334, there never was a "battle of Imbros" in 1337, there never was a "battle of Artah" in 1339. On another hand, the siege and capture of Smyrne in 1344 by troops raised by the Pope Clement VI is authentic - although this army was not made of sensu stricto crusaders. In fact the real Crusades ended in 1291, long time before the Black Death (1348-1352), with the last crusader fortress, Saint-Jean d'Acre, taken by the Muslims. The director and the author of the scenario needed however two former crusaders for this movie in time of the Black Death, so they bended a little bit the history - but considering the final result I am tempted to give them the absolution...))))
To conclude, I advise you not to believe the critics (or the reviewers for that matter) and give this movie a fair trial. If you find it wanting, you can hang it, drown it or even burn it at stake, and that most probably with the benediction of the Church... ))) But if you like fantastic adventures, you could really find it quite entertaining - I certainly did!