There’s a certain practiced apathy that comes from some movies, the sense that a duty is being fulfilled by professionals who have no illusions of legacies, they’re only trying to pay some bills. Sometimes this can be done on a grand scale, and you don’t really see it in Hollywood as much as you catch it in excessively busy European films with steady budgets and an interest in busting through any marketplace other than America. Often, these are ill-fated attempts to start franchises made by European investors who don’t know much about moviemaking, which leads these films to have a borderline mechanical efficiency. All of this explains how movies like “The Adventurer: Curse Of The Midas Box” happen.
The film's source material stems from three relatively recent Young Adult books based in steampunk tropes and centered on the character of Mariah Mundi, a boy inventor who gets involved in an elaborate mystery. Sensing that Mundi is the least interesting character in the story, they’ve removed his name from the title, placing less pressure on the young Aneurin Barnard to carry the film. Barnard has evocative features—his fragile, pale skin and soft cheeks reminiscent of a Tim Burton character—but he’s slotted in more of a generic leading man role, an extrovert part for a natural introvert. As always, there’s an organization, some possible prophecies, and dastardly adult villains who keep shooting themselves in the foot as Mundi finds new ways to non-violently get himself out of messes.
Early on, Mundi’s family is broken up and he’s besieged by a group of henchmen working for bad-guy philanthropist Otto Luger, a dandy seeking the MacGuffin of the title. Or isn’t a MacGuffin supposed to distract everyone from the real plot? This is basically just a chase-and-fight film with very little on the bones, as young Mundi lurks around and veteran actor Sam Neill plays Luger, hissing, “Get me Mariah Mundi!” with the same intensity of, “Honey, this is an empty roll, get me some new toilet paper.” Neill’s such a pleasure of a presence, and it seems very clear he’s only been acting in movies like this and last year’s “Escape Plan” to finance his own non-cinematic endeavors. When he gets his hands on the device that can turn anything into gold, his stoicism reads as “I am now holding a prop.”
There’s not much story, but there’s a whole lot of busyness on the periphery of the frame. Both Luger and Mundi’s actions are being watched closely by a mysterious cabal of agents called the Bureau of Antiquities, who basically operate like S.H.I.E.L.D in the Marvel movies: both clandestine and casual, overly secretive but also conveniently helpful at the right times. They’re led by Captain Jack Charity, played by a preening Michael Sheen in a grating performance that seems heavily borrowed from Robert Downey Jr.’s “Sherlock Holmes.” It’s kind of a riot to see the foppish Sheen descend upon a group of thugs, brandishing a cane and alerting them that he knows “five types of martial arts” before sloppily hitting them on the head with it. This is kids’ stuff, but give kids a bit more credit.
'The Adventurer' is directed with sub-workmanlike precision by Jonathan Newman, a helmer who came up in the world of children’s entertainment, but who last directed the incompetent sexual satire “Swinging With The Finkels” (good to know he’s incompetent no matter the audience). Newman spends excruciating moments of screen-time allowing the camera to linger over his Home Depot-built sets as if this were Scorsese’s re-creation of the Five Points. For being a kids-centric film, the picture is relatively slow and joyless, with an enormous amount of time spent with the introverted Mundi and an abused teenage girl who won’t step up to her father. While that last subplot sounds dark, it’s rendered obvious because of how overtly oppressive it is. It’s impossible to suddenly force shadows into the frame, because you know the sunlight is just moments away.
Poor Lena Headey vamps it up in something of an assistant role to Luger, announcing every line reading with a double-take and arched eyebrow. Her tics pile up enough to add an extra five minutes to a runtime that feels never-ending. Of course, it’s only because we know it’s leading towards the inevitable: that one guy’s face is too famous for him to only have a handful of first act lines, and the movie is based on a trilogy of books. Like clockwork, they’ll probably churn out another, and it will be just as professionally dull as this one. [D]