★ ★ ½
“Phantasmagorical” is one word that comes to mind when conjuring up ways to describe director Sergei Bodrov’s lively fantasy adventure Seventh Son. And while other, less complimentary adjectives such as “chintzy” and “clichéd” follow closely behind, there’s little denying that the veteran Russian filmmaker brings an impressive level of energy to his action sequences. Likewise, screenwriters Charles Leavitt and Steve Knight strive to fill this bloodless sword-and-sorcery romp with enough frightening, fantastical creatures to keep us wondering just what threat might pop up next in our heroes’ noble quest to vanquish a vengeful witch. Surprisingly, it isn’t the surplus of CGI-animated beasties that strain our patience as a mystical knight and his new apprentice strive to vanquish this ancient evil, but instead the shameless scenery chewing by a versatile Oscar winner who seems to be having a bit too much fun for his own good.
We first meet Master Gregory (Jeff Bridges) as a young man atop a lonely mountain peak, where he’s just confined the powerful witch Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore) to the only prison capable of containing her. Decades later, the appearance of the blood moon replenishes Mother Malkin’s power and she manages to break free, prompting Master Gregory and his young apprentice on a dangerous quest to recapture her. But that mission goes awry, and the witch kills Gregory’s trusted pupil before making a daring escape. Now, with just one week to go until the blood moon is full and Malkin’s powers will reach their peak, Gregory must seek out the seventh son of a seventh son and train him as his new apprentice.
Traveling to a secluded farm, he finds Tom Ward (Ben Barnes) and pays the boy’s parents a tidy sum in exchange for their youngest son. The first order of business for the master and his new assistant is to stop at a nearby town and gather provisions. In the process of doing so, Tom saves accused witch Alice (Alicia Vikander) from being burned at the stake, and a romance soon begins to blossom. Despite his initial assessment that pretty Alice couldn’t be one of the baleful hags that he’s been sworn to dispatch, Tom fails to realize that she is the daughter of Bony Lizzie (Antje Traue), Mother Malkin’s sister and sworn partner. Over the course of the next seven days, Master Gregory, his trusted ogre-ish servant Tusk, and Tom battle all manner of mythical creatures on their journey to Mother Malkin’s cloistered mountain fortress. But none of them will be a match for the feared sorceress and her formidable lieutenants, and only once Tom has discovered the secret of his true origins—and the mysterious talisman bestowed to him by his mother—will he be able to summon the courage and strength to survive the coming battle.
Take every fantasy trope you can think of, write each one on a scrap of paper, and dump them on the floor. Congratulations! Now you’re a Hollywood screenwriter! From the witch who seeks to rule a mystical kingdom to the “chosen one” tasked with defeating her, from the aging knight on his final mission to the star-crossed romance, from the sacred talisman to the strong sidekick, Seventh Son is derivative to its core. As such, it will probably come as little shock to learn that it was adapted from a novel by Joseph Delaney titled The Spook’s Apprentice, which is—surprise!—the first installment in a fantasy series dubbed The Wardstone Chronicles. Perhaps in his books Delaney does a better job of making this material feel less warmed-over, but the screenplay by Leavitt and his Oscar-nominated writing partner Knight (Dirty Pretty Things) has the air of a greatest-hits compilation assembled from a dozen failed franchise starters.
Fortunately, whenever the plot starts to feel too familiar, Bodrov distracts us with another expertly paced action sequence that allows the mythical creatures—and Bridges’ stuntman—their moment in the spotlight. The director of 2007’s critically acclaimed Mongol, Bodrov is no stranger to sweeping vistas or epic battles, and it’s here that Seventh Son comes screaming to life (at least in short bursts). The three decades of experience he brings to the production may be Seventh Son’s saving grace, since Bridges, replete with mystical flask, seems concerned with little more than turning in a cloaked caricature of crusty Rooster Cogburn from the Coen brothers’ True Grit. Maybe he’s simply trying to account for the fact that young lead Barnes displays about as much charisma as the wooden staff he wields late in the movie, yet his cartoonish performance feels slightly out of place in an otherwise straightforward adventure film. Moore, on the other hand, plays the wrathful Mother Makin with a sinister blend of menace and seduction that never crosses the line into full-on camp, even when she’s plastered with black-metal eye makeup in the final battle. In the end, Seventh Son is an enjoyable but forgettable romp that’s unlikely to become the franchise starter it so obviously aspires to be.