"The Beastmaster," a new sword-and-sorcery concoction currently at a 20 metropolitan theaters, benefits from a few good casting ideas (mostly among the animals) and John Alcott's frequently impressive cinematography.
Unfortunately, the script is so disjointed, the acting so vapid and the motivations so mysterious that you end up laughing in the most inappropriate places.
Rip Torn is the rotten-toothed Maax (rhymes with Ajax), the evil Jun priest who has a thing for sacrificing children. He is always surrounded by bald priests and ugly witches with Russ Meyer bodies and faces by Frankenstein, which may explain his persistently foul temper. Torn reportedly showed up on the set of "Beastmaster" less than 24 hours after completing work on the forthcoming TV mini-series, "The Blue and the Gray," and for most of the film looks either half-asleep or embarrassed.
The other "big" names in the cast are Tanya Roberts, a latter-day "Charlie's Angel" who handles her slave-girl-who's-really-a-princess role with endless ineptitude, and the competent black character actor John Amos as bald-but-good Seth, who plays Little John to muscular Marc Singer's Robin Hood-like Dar. Dar, of course, is the master of beasts, specifically a pair of overly cute ferrets, a huge bear, a perenially circling hawk and Kipling, a 500-pound tiger dyed black to look like a huge panther.
As Dar heads for revenge, he starts collecting his furry and/or feathered entourage; had the trip been much longer, he could have entered the city disguised as a circus. But if you want to know the roots of his animal magnetism, you'll have to make sense of the opening sequence: A witch sneaks into King Zed's bedroom with a leashed cow, transposes his unborn child from the suddenly bloated belly of the queen into the stomach of the cow which is then slaughtered, after which the baby gets tattooed on the hand and is about to be thrown into a fire before a wandering peasant rescues him and raises him as a son. Something about "prophecy."
Alcott's cinematography is at its best outdoors, particularly in the canyons of Nevada's Valley of Fire State Park and California's Simi Valley, where most of the exteriors were shot. Except for one sequence that seems to have been shot with the wrong lens, the Oscar-winning Alcott (he did "Barry Lyndon" and "The Shining") beautifully evokes barbarian wilderness and a sense of pagan wonder, but he's too frequently let down by Roy Watts' inconsistent editing.
Even less successful is the script, coauthored by producer Paul Pepperman and director Don Coscarelli ("Phantasm"). They obstruct the plot with travails more common to Ulysses, a love story out of the pulps and dialogue out of Monty Python (as Amos wanders blithely into a plainly empty desert looking for would-be rebels, Singer opines, "If they're out there, he'll find them."). The writers aren't consistent, either: One kid get an arrow in the right shoulder, and as he's healing, Amos advises that "he won't have the use of his left hand for a while."