By Gabe Toro | The Playlist January 6, 2011 at 10:01AM
There's black magic everywhere in "Season of the Witch." Be prepared for winged demons taking to the sky. Gird yourself for the specter of zombie monks. Secure your temperament against the threat of mutant werewolves. And mind the massive forehead of veteran character actor Ron Perlman. No stranger to swords, forests and monsters, Perlman -- all upper body and grunts -- smirks his way through the production, setting the tone in that he's not going to take anything all that seriously. But when a supernatural monster comes at him, you can be sure he will headbutt said demon several times.
Perlman plays second banana to stoic Nicolas Cage as Behmen and Felson, two knights during the Crusades. In service to the church for probably over a decade, the two readily take battle against armies of the heathen, shedding blood for God. You'd think it would be more than a few years before they encountered women and children, but nonetheless, the death of one innocent is enough to lead Behmen and Felson away from the troops. Though there's an admirable panache to a montage of the duo sprinting through various historical clashes and smashing swords with enemy combatants, a touch that recalls the sloppy opening credits to "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" but done with a bit more class. And more headbutting.
After a brief trek through a dilapidated countryside (very brief -- the film clocks in at a brisk 95 minutes), the two are caught sneaking through a village and branded deserters. Instead of death, they are granted a meeting with the Cardinal. His face covered in tumors, scars and exposed puss (Christopher Lee has never looked worse -- or by that account, better), and his request is the knights lead a suicide mission to transport a suspected witch across the countryside, for their theories are that she brings with her the Black Plague. After some running time-padded uncertainty (and a bit of lighthearted downtime -- Cage and Perlman have a peculiar chemistry), the quest is on.
The movie admirably doesn't screw around with sleight of hand and suspense-delaying techniques. There's no question this girl is supernatural and, despite her polite countenance and unassuming looks, she intends to test the mettle of these travelers. More loaded questions surface and linger, less open-ended than self-explanatory. How did the church know she was responsible for the Plague? Is she serious when she accuses the friar of sexually abusing her? Is that old-timey rickety bridge going to hold them all?
As Behmen, Cage gives one of his weightier performances, where his baggage drags him down, mostly in posture. As a lead, Cage seems tired, as if all these lead roles have begun to wear him down, which bodes poorly for his four starring roles this calendar year. "Season of the Witch" could use some of that usual Cage flair, particularly when he verbally spars with the imprisoned girl, played by the young Claire Foy. She's clearly up to the task of playing a villainess with a trace of fake humanity, the sort of layers you have to utilize in a film like this, but Cage can't match her energy.
Aside from Cage, the film benefits greatly from the gravity added by a solid supporting cast. Along with Perlman and having a grand old time, the always-classy Ulrich Thomson features as a brave nobleman, while Stephen Graham tags along as a shifty guide. As a possibly duplicitous monk, Stephen Campbell Moore is all wide-eyed naiveté, while the young Robert Sheehan of cult TV series "Misfits" plays a tag-along altar boy with none of that gee-willikers obnoxiousness that defines younger characters that tag along on adventures like these.
"Season of the Witch" never approaches anything remotely resembling a point. The church is corrupt, demons are out to get us, some of us will be heroes, etc. At times like a greatest hits reprisal of popular genre cliché, the picture motors along somewhat episodically. But though rumors suggested massive reshoots, some without director Dominic Sena, the film never feels more choppy than a Sunday afternoon Starz movie should feel, and the entire affair is strung together by the charm of its supporting characters and the central mystery: what is this girl? It slowly becomes apparent that "witch" is too limiting a term, and Sena (or whomever) prolongs this mystery by, miraculously, allowing Foy to command the screen in a performance a little bit better than this type of film deserves. Such is your "Season of the Witch" recommendation: a better film than this type of film deserves. [B-]