Sometimes it just doesn’t do to be a completist.
Having just seen and loved Timur Bekmambetov’s Night Watch, I thought I’d give his debut feature, The Arena, a whirl.
Night Watch it ain’t. Let’s put it this way. You have to start somewhere, and not every director gets it right the first time.
In the waning days of the Roman Empire, at a settlement on the empire’s outskirts, governor Timarchus (Viktor Verzhbitsky, chewing the scenery) is bored and cranky. He misses the gladiator fights back in Rome, and the local talent just isn’t up to scratch. He sends his lackey to Rome to fetch a few gladiators. The lackey also brings some women for the local brothel, including Jessemina (Karen McDougal, a former Playboy Playmate) and Bodicia (Lisa Dergen, another former Playboy Playmate). As time goes on, the bitter and unbalanced Timarchus decides to have the brothel women trained as gladiators (gladiatrices?) and fight in the arena.
It sounds like a simple exploitation movie, and that’s what it should have been. Unfortunately Bekmambetov and screenwriter John William Corrington decide to give us lots of backstory and some character development. Usually I’m all in favor of this, but McDougal and Dergen are beautiful blank slates, no worse actresses than you’d expect but no better either, who can’t bring the necessary emotion to the roles. By contrast, Sandahl Bergman in Conan the Barbarian, while not a great actress, had the charisma and physical presence needed to make her character believable. With only McDougal and Dergen, the best route would have been to go the straightforward exploitation route, with lots more girlfights and ass-kicking.
But that wouldn’t have saved The Arena, which suffers most from Bekmambetov’s overly stylized direction. Night Watch was highly stylized, but the style suited the story. In The Arena, Bekmambetov not only uses too many flashy tricks, he uses them at the oddest times. Rarely if ever is the camera stable – often the camera movement is so shaky and wild it’s impossible to tell what’s going on. It’s like Michael Bay without his Ritalin. Then there’s the inappropriate music choices (beautiful choral music during a rape) and strange cinematography (all the scenes in the gladiatorial arena are in sepia). Bekmambetov doesn’t seem to know what to do with his actors. Dergen and McDougal are flat and one-note; Verzhbitsky, so chilling in Night Watch, is seriously out-of-control. Then there’s the scene where the Roman soldiers celebrate something or other by putting on their armor and hopping in unison. Yes, hopping, and it’s the most bewildering cinematic scene since the dog started talking in Summer of Sam.
There are some good moments. I particularly liked a scene when the fight trainer chooses which women will fight, and as he looks at each, there’s the sound of a sword being drawn. There are some interesting visuals, on the rare occasions that the camera holds still. But it’s a rare instance when the style and the substance work together.
The Arena isn’t a good movie, but there’s something weirdly endearing about its badness, like poetry written by a teenager. Plus, Bekmambetov did improve as a director – my poetry still stinks.
The DVD looks nice and the extras include a trailer, featurettes on McDougal and Dergen, and previews of some other films (including one for Emmanuelle in Space!).