Good ole Nicolas Cage; second only to Samuel L. Jackson as the hardest working man in Hollywood. Before I begin this review for Season of the Witch, I must confess I have a soft spot for Mr. Cage. No matter the material, he makes it better, and anyone who calls him a shoddy actor hasn't seen Leaving Las Vegas or Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. This film, from no-frills director Dominic Sena, sees Cage as a 14th century crusader charged with transporting a suspected witch to the remote monastery where her fate will be determined. Slightly stilted and far from weighty, Season of the Witch remains fun in spite of itself.
After years of brutal fighting, Teutonic knights Behmen (Cage) and Felson (Ron Perlman) return to a plague-ravaged Styria and are captured as deserters. To save their heads, the pair agrees to transport Anna (Claire Foy), a young woman accused of witchcraft, to a monastery so the church can terminate the evil they assume is causing the plague. Joining the traveling party are a priest, Debelzaq (Stephen Campbell Moore), a young altar boy, Kay (Robert Sheehan), and a swindler, Hagamar (Stephen Graham), who serves as the guide. As the men travel further toward the monastery, each questions his faith and the true identity of the young prisoner.
I'd love to tell you that Season of the Witch is a deeply affecting film that explores the hypocrisy of humankind and provides an intelligent discourse on religion, but it's no such film. What we have here is a fictional overview of history as taught by Cage. No stranger to the past after serving time on National Treasure and its sequel, Cage is a likeable and informed guide. Personally, I'd be OK with schoolchildren getting all their history credits with Cage. In this episode, the topic is the bubonic plague and the surrounding speculation that unorthodoxy helped fuel the fire.
From the get-go, dialogue is less than natural. Cage and Perlman speak awkwardly to one another despite having served together for years in battle. Director Sena is not a household name, but he has directed several big hits, including Swordfish and Gone in 60 Seconds, which also stars Cage. His films are always a bit stiff, and Season of the Witch is no exception. I suspect the proceedings would have been more fun if Sena hadn't insisted on taking everything so damn seriously. The group may be fighting for the survival of mankind, but it's hard to take a film that culminates with CGI demons and dancing monks at face value.
Is Season of the Witch a good film? Not particularly. It is, however, fairly entertaining as pulp drama. The scenery is beautiful, and it's always great to watch Cage chew up his surroundings and spit them back out. The climax is silly, but the film features a couple of nice action set pieces and some neat tricks of the hand. Season of the Witch won't be winning any awards this year, but I don't care. I like it anyway.
Fox continues to impress with its 1.78:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer for Season of the Witch. Even the casual viewer will notice the amazing amount of detail in nearly every frame of the film. Backgrounds stretch for miles, the image is beautifully textured and the transfer captures every facial wrinkle, tree branch and dancing fire caught by the camera. The surroundings are painted in neutral, desaturated tones, but Sena fills the image with striking colors that demand attention but never bleed. Contrast is usually excellent, and skin tones are natural despite the medieval color scheme. The only issues holding the transfer back from greatness are blacks that crush during some nighttime scenes and motion blur during some scenes of weak CGI.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is dynamic and impressive. Swordplay effects travel throughout the sound field, ambient noise surrounds the viewer and directional sounds are frequent and expressive. Dialogue is perfect and never overshadowed by the sharp, bombastic effects. The score is weighty and sonically pleasing, and some jump scares arouse a healthy LFE response. A French Dolby Digital 5.1 track is also available, as are English SDH, Spanish and French subtitles.
EXTRAS AND PACKAGING:
Fox's Blu-ray for Season of the Witch includes the film and extras in high definition on the first disc, as well as a second disc that includes a digital copy. A glossy slipcover wraps the blue eco-case.
Extras include a number of deleted scenes (9:56) and an alternate ending (9:20) that I found to be stronger than that used in the film. Becoming the Demon (8:29) explores the creation of the CGI antagonist, and On a Crusade (6:07) discusses the opening battles that were added late in the film's production. A theatrical trailer also is included.
With awkward dialogue, a middling script and too much silly CGI, Season of the Witch is far from a perfect film. But, despite all of its flaws, the film is an entertaining, succinct actioner with beautiful scenery and a fun performance by Nicolas Cage as a knight charged with transporting a witch to trial. Season of the Witch hardly deserves its 7 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and fans of Cage and goofy history lessons will likely enjoy the ride. Fox's Blu-ray is technically sound and features a couple of nice extras. Recommended.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.