Jan Zizka, a beloved 15th century Czech folk hero, looms large in the nation’s collective consciousness, a skilled, ingenious, one-eyed warrior who led peasants and rebels into battles that he never lost. In Prague, they’ve erected one of the largest bronze equestrian statues in the world in his honor, and now, “Medieval,” the most expensive Czech film ever made, depicts his early years, with the intense actor Ben Foster taking on the role of Zizka.
“Medieval” is written and directed by Czech filmmaker, actor and stuntman Petr Jákl, who also represented the country in judo in the 2000 Olympics. The story is in part by his father, Petr Jákl Sr., another Olympian judoka, and it’s clear that both have a tremendous reverence for the man, his mission and for his brutal, bloody reputation. If there’s anything to recommend about the crunchingly gory “Medieval,” it’s the daring, no-holds-barred stunt work, the battles and some spectacular underwater sequences.
This is the third directorial effort for Jákl, whose second film, “Ghoul,” was the highest-grossing horror film in Czech history. He brings that touch of the macabre to this tale of medieval warfare, following the path paved by “Game of Thrones” and “The Last Duel,” which plunged audiences into hyperrealistic and uber-violent battle scenes. Foster, who tends to disappear into his roles, approaches the bloodshed, and Jan’s emotional journey, with his typical ferocity.
The legendary Michael Caine, playing a character named Lord Boresh, takes us into the Kingdom of Bohemia at the turn of the 15th century, where chaos reigns, and it requires several frames of onscreen text and a voice-over to get us up to speed. Essentially, the plague has plunged Europe, and the Catholic Church, into chaos, and there are two popes: one in Rome and one in France. Benevolent Bohemian King Wenceslas IV (Karel Roden) is trying to get to Rome to be crowned king of the empire, though his debts hold him back, while his scheming brother King Sigismund of Hungary (Matthew Goode) plots behind his back to steal the throne.
Boresh hires Jan as a mercenary to kidnap Lady Katherine (Sophie Lowe), the fiancee of Lord Rosenberg (Til Schweiger), a Sigismund ally. Katherine also happens to be the niece of the king of France. It’s a bit of political gamesmanship, and the rest of the film unfolds as a series of ambushes and double-crosses, mercenaries and peasants fighting to gain control of Katherine, who falls in love with her captor, Jan, and his honor.
They are both deeply religious people, and through Jan, Katherine learns to harness her own agency. It’s clear that Jákl wants “Medievel” to be a kind of Czech “Braveheart,” but the political machinations are so muddled that there’s no clear goal. It takes a little too long for the script to get to “freedom,” presumably because of the whole lady-kidnapping business.
“Medieval” is a film with an identity crisis, caught between its lowbrow sword-and-splatter charms and grander ambitions. As a quick and dirty 90-minute corker, it could have been a nice and nasty slice of genre filmmaking, but Jákl aims for something more epic in scope, and the film drags, easily 30 minutes too long. Not even the electrifying Foster is enough to zap some life into this tale of court intrigue and the resulting clash of warriors. Lowe attempts to hold the heart of the matter, but she’s not given enough to do.
The clarity of message gets hopelessly bogged down in the internecine conflicts of all the players, the script utterly convoluted even though the film is essentially just a bunch of guys killing each other in the woods while a pair of brothers squabble over who gets to be king. What exactly Jan is fighting for feels dreadfully unclear, despite vague aphorisms like “honor, justice, freedom, faith, hope” intoned over the final frames. We’ll have to take their word for it.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
Rated: R, for strong and grisly violent content throughout, and some nudity
Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes
Playing: Starts Sept. 9 in general release