This ultraviolent low-rent Viking romp is dumb and dreary but ultimately hard to hate.
England, 871AD. The landscape is wild and brooding. The sky is lowering and sort of purply, as though a DoP were reliant on filters to achieve an otherwise-unearned sense of foreboding. Steinar (Charlie Bewley), a Viking prince, rocks up with his firm, smack into a Saxon crew. The Saxons give it all that, so the blades come out and Steinar’s mob give the farmers’ boys a right pasting. Those that can, have it away on their poorly-shod toes.
This is Dark Age war: nasty, stylish and, in the important, slashy bits, in slow motion. And it’s no surprise that this particular hooligan-soaked Viking saga has Nick Love’s moniker on the production credits. The biggest disappointment is that Danny Dyer doesn’t pop up in a bearskin trackie shouting, "'Ave some of that, King Cnut!" The biggest (but not the only) disappointment in this patchily paced yet somehow hard to dislike bloodletter.
Steinar and his men, with names like Hagen and Grim (we know this because they flash up during the fight in Heavy Metal writing across stabby freezeframe) are merely the harbingers of a larger Viking invasion force. An (offscreen) battle ensues and, Steinar's father, the Viking chieftain, is mortally wounded, leaving the succession open to a traitorous older son. So it is that the old man's thoughts turn to his long-banished firstborn, Hakan (Elliot Cowan), whom he demands Steinar seek out and bring back to take his rightful place as heir. It's a MacGuffin as old as the gods, and none the worse for it, here sending a band of extremely sweary mockney Norsemen up-country in search of this Kurtz-like figure with a reputation for all kinds of non-specific depravity.
But the quest that follows is a dreary affair, interspersing overly choreographed and repetitive blade action with bleak longshots of the Welsh mountains before descending into the kind of endless, budget-friendly woodland that made 1980s sword-and-snoozery epic Hawk the Slayer such an enticing prospect. The slew of recent, mostly British, attempts to leverage some kind of resurrection for the historical epic, such as the tension-neutral King Arthur and the superior The Eagle, have met with varying degrees of success.
As here, all have relied on set and setting, failing to grasp that the great historical movies, from El Cid and The Vikings through Andrei Rublev all the way to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator – lavish screen time on character and motivation before diving into the mayhem. So we make do, in Hammer of the Gods, with the all-too-brief appearance of Ivan Kaye as an outrageously flamboyant homosexual berserker and smile at the sheer chutzpah of the final scenes, in which a shaven-headed Hakan channels Brando in Apocalypse Now, firelight and ghostly lisp to boot.
But even without the ambition of those earlier, golden-age movies, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising set the bar high for the kind of bonkers magic-realist Norse saga this aims for. Sadly, the uneasy blend of ultraviolence and Saturday teatime production values on show here just won’t cut it.
A screening room draped in animal skins and broken swords. Interesting…
A 'Visit Wales' ad with extra snarling.
A failure, yes, but a glorious one.