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Season of the Witch is exactly the sort of movie that comes out in the first week of a new year, for better and for worse. A period fantasy adventure set around the time of the Crusades, there’s fun to be had just so long as you’re willing to overlook a couple of gaping flaws. The cast certainly helps, especially with Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman in the lead roles, as does the story, which manages to pull a few surprises out of what is otherwise a relatively derivative genre tale.
Behmen (Cage) and Felson (Perlman) are longtime friends and comrades-in-arms, buddies who paint the landscape with blood as they hack and slash their way through the Crusades. A difference of opinion with the church over how their violent message is spread leads the two to go AWOL and hightail it back home, where they are arrested for their crimes. Rather than simply execute them, the church makes them an offer: escort a suspected witch (Claire Foy) to a distant monastery for judgment and all sins will be forgiven.
Thus the stage is set for a grand adventure filled with tense set pieces and beautiful locations. Season of the Witch is very clearly cut from the cloth of fantasy classics like Ladyhawke and Krull: it’s wide open for a critical beatdown, but that would be a pointless exercise given that the focus is on delivering a fun ride, which Witch more or less accomplishes.
The big surprise, and downside to some, is the two stars. Director Dominic Sena’s pairing of Cage and Perlman as one-liner-spouting buddies was inspired, but his direction of them is shockingly toned down. Sena and Cage previously worked together on Gone In 60 Seconds, so it’s not like the director isn’t aware of his star’s particular (and peculiar) talents. He and Perlman deliver understated performances, which is going to come as a flat-out disappointment if you’re a fan of watching either actor’s typical antics in film.
The dialogue doesn’t help any, shifting as it does between period-speak and brotastic zingers with modern-day inflections. The actors have said in interviews that this was the intention, a way of offering audiences an easily relatable way in to the story. My personal rebuttal to that is, write convincing dialogue for your assembled players and people will relate. A Knight’s Tale is a good example of period aesthetics being mixed with modern-day motifs. This movie is not.
Thankfully, the story actually manages to keep question marks floating in the air until the final act. You’re never quite sure who to trust as Behmen, Felson and their traveling party traverse the heavily forested landscape. They end up in some tricky situations from an action perspective, but the group dynamics also serve to cast suspicions to and fro, meaning you’re never sure who to trust. The supporting cast do their jobs well too, particularly Foy as the maybe-witch and Robert Sheehan as a tagalong altar boy who is skilled at swordplay.
Season of the Witch could have been better, but it also could have been worse. This is not a “typical” Nic Cage or Ron Perlman movie (if typical even exists for those guys), so don’t go in expecting to hinge your enjoyment on crazy actors doing crazy things. Instead, spend a morning with Krull and its ilk, remind yourself of a time when movies didn’t necessarily have to mean something or reach for perfection in order to be enjoyable. That’s the experience Season of the Witch offers, and that’s what you should go in expecting.