Czech folk hero Jan Zizka’s story has been dramatized — and mythologized — in various forms many times, including a mid-1950s celluloid trilogy by Otakar Vavra that was arguably the local industry’s most ambitious production in those somewhat stodgy, pre-New Wave days. Purportedly the Czech Republic’s most expensive feature to date, Petr Jakl’s new “Medieval” portrays the same legendary figure in what’s anything but an old-school costume epic. Instead, this robust, assured enterprise offers a distant past in the brutally combat-driven action mode of “Gladiator” and “Braveheart,” its patriotic sentiments steeped in mud and blood.
The economic realities for such a costly spectacular require a degree of formulaic creative decisions in line with current international audience tastes, while the casting of American and British actors in primary roles further waters down a distinctive regional character. Nevertheless, “Medieval” succeeds as a lively, handsome chunk of history (however freely imagined), with nary a dull moment between densely-packed intrigues, chases and battles. The Avenue will release this English-language spectacle on nearly 1,200 U.S. screens Sept. 9, simultaneous with rollout in several other territories.
Zizka was a famously innovative military tactical leader said to have never lost a fight, though his forces were often greatly outnumbered. He eventually rose to the level of General, playing a major role in armed conflicts of a Bohemia torn by civil war before his plague death in 1424. “Medieval” is set several years earlier, however, during a more shadowy period when presumed ill fortune led the young man (who’d been born into a lower echelon of gentry) to hire out as a mercenary. We first meet him in 1402 Italy, where Jan (Ben Foster) and his band of rough-hewn warriors are tasked with saving from political assassination a key negotiator for their homeland’s interests — 89-year-old Michael Caine as Lord Boresh, a wholly invented character.
Boresh is attempting to stem the general chaos that’s engulfed Europe since the death of Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. His designated successor is the current King of Bohemia, Wenceslaus IV (Karel Roden). But as depicted here, he’s a weak leader undermined by treacherous “allies,” including half-brother King Sigismund of Hungary (Matthew Goode) and scheming nobleman Henry of Rosenberg (Til Schweiger). Such is the political disarray at present that there are two rival Popes, each with different ideas of who should be crowned Emperor. When Rosenberg balks at lending cash that would further the Prague-based monarch’s cause, Wenceslaus is persuaded to have the wealthy aristocrat’s fiancée abducted for ransom. Protesting “We don’t kidnap women,” Jan and company nonetheless reluctantly agree to do the deed.
The majority of “Medieval” thus has Lady Katherine (Sophie Lowe) bounced like a ping-pong ball between sides, forever captured and recaptured, though her own allegiances shift quickly once she realizes the brutal treachery her betrothed is capable of. Jan’s efforts are often helped by the local peasantry, whose rebelliousness has been stoked by years of excess taxation and other abuses. Meanwhile, a reunion with his own so-inclined brother Jaroslav (William Moseley) sours when their connection attracts a violent visit from Sigismund’s right-hand goon Torak (Roland Moller).
Striking a posture more muscular than plush, the impressively mounted film is still always visually attractive, with strong design contributions topped by DP Jesper Toffner’s widescreen lensing of beautiful landscapes and imposing historical sites — even if the use of eagle’s-eye drone shots sometimes borders on overkill. This is the kind of saga much less interested in court pageantry than gory mano-a-mano combat, each mace, axe and sword impact duly accompanied by stereo gut-smoosh or thwack. Such set-pieces seldom let up, and if they fall short of being memorable, it is to the credit of Jakl, his editors and other key contributors that “Medieval” never becomes one long, pummeling dirge of action excess.
It does go over the top occasionally (especially toward the end), and the dialogue is a bit too on-the-nose at times, simplifying matters to the kind of generic catchphrase that crosses all moviegoing borders. One could also balk at the levying of a modern sensibility on other aspects, such as having a sheltered noble heroine who’s somehow acquired progressive social ideas, not to mention unexpected medical and diving skills. But this isn’t “Marketa Lazarova,” and on its own up-to-the-moment stylistic terms, “Medieval” works just fine. As far as historical veracity goes, well, this epoch will be very foreign terrain for most viewers, who will come away with at least a general sense of the period, if not a lot of trustworthy answers to any classroom quiz.
It’s a big leap for the director after two much-more-modestly scaled prior features, 2010 true-crime drama “Kajinek” and 2015 found-footage horror “Ghoul,” a home-turf hit that looked like just another tired “Blair Witch” knockoff elsewhere. (Its lead Jennifer Armour plays a prominent peasant rebel here.) He manages to cohere the multinational casting into an effective ensemble, even if Caine perhaps brings a bit too much star wattage to the table, and Foster not quite enough. Though only partway though his life’s journey, this Jan Zizka is already presented in terse, steely, iconic terms that might’ve been better served by an actor with more innate charisma — Foster’s significant acting chops are wasted on a heroic cipher, his competent performance somewhat overshadowed by supporting players.
Unsurprisingly, the villains make a more vivid impression, Goode in particular glittering with some of the crowned crazy that made Joaquin Phoenix indelible in “Gladiator.” Lowe brings poise and conviction to a role that might easily have grown silly. It’s also helpful that the script centralizes Jan and Katherine’s initially hostile relationship, so that their eventual romance seems less a shoehorned-in convention than is typical for films of this ilk.