Feb 4, 2020
Kull the Conqueror (1997)
Before he began his new career as Trump’s mouthpiece, Kevin Sorbo was actually beloved for starring in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Naturally, like most actors who hit it big on TV, there were hopes that this stardom would be able to translate to the big screen. Some such transitions came out brilliantly, such as the case with Clint Eastwood, while others not so much, like David Caruso. This film, which was Sorbo’s first starring film role, ended up in the latter category.
Kull actually began life as the third Conan movie. The lead role was played in the previous two Conan pictures by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who became a film star as a result. As Arnold’s star kept rising during the late ’90s, he became less and less interested in playing Conan again. Producer Raffaella De Laurentiis would eventually rework the script, renaming the character Kull, who like Conan was the creation of author Robert E. Howard. When Sorbo signed on, he agreed with the name change, as he didn’t want to play a character that another actor had already played (I guess Sorbo forgot he wasn’t the first actor to play Hercules).
The film begins in the land of Valusia, where General Taligaro (Thomas Ian Griffith) is watching barbarian slaves fight each other. One emerges victorious: Kull (Sorbo). But the general says that Kull has no chance of joining his Dragon Legion, because Kull isn’t a descendant of royalty. But he doesn’t object to Kull returning to the castle with him when they get word that King Borna (Sven-Ole Thorsen) has gone bonkers and is killing his own descendants.
Not long after arriving, Kull engages the king in battle and wins. As he dies, Borna states that Kull is the new king, which pisses off Taligaro and other nobles.
Getting acclimated to his new role, Kull soon meets his concubines, one of whom he recognizes. She’s a fortuneteller named Zareta (Karina Lombard) who once predicted that Kull would become a king. She later tells him that the fate of his kingdom depends on a kiss. Naturally, he takes this to mean a kiss from her, but Kull gives Zareta the brush-off when she reminds him that she’s a slave (okaaay!)
Kull’s attempts to change things is hampered by his aide Tue (Roy Brocksmith), who constantly refers to large stone tablets on which the laws of Valusia are written, including the part about allowing slavery.
After failing to kill Kull during his coronation, Taligaro and his aides get help from Enaros (Edward Tudor-Pole), who helps them revive a long dead sorceress named Akivasha (Tia Carrere). Once awakened, and with a hotter appearance of course, Akivasha proceeds to seduce Kull. This quickly leads to him proclaiming her his queen. But that night, they make out before she seems to murder Kull and subsequently frame Zareta for it.
Taligaro is delighted, not realizing that Akivasha didn’t really kill Kull. Rather, she’s keeping him imprisoned, presumably to get her groove on while working on her plans to resurrect the ancient Acheron Empire, which she ruled before it was destroyed by the god Valka, and Valusia was subsequently built in its place.
Kull is soon freed thanks to Zareta and her brother Ascalante (Gary “Litefoot” Davis). Taligaro is shocked to find Kull is alive before the two briefly cross swords. After Kull, Zareta, and Acalante escape, the general expresses how pissed off he is about it to Akivasha, but she assures him that Kull will soon be dead.
Acalante, a priest, informs Kull that Akivasha can only be stopped with a weapon called the Breath of Valka. They head north to get this weapon on a ship captained by Kull’s acquaintance Juba (Harvey Fierstein). But it turns out Akivasha anticipated this, and sent Taligaro after them. The general kidnaps Zareta and the weapon, killing Asalante and wounding Kull and leaving him for dead.
Privately, Taligaro tells Zareta of his plans to kill Akivasha in order to take the throne for himself. It’s always so helpful when movie bad guys just spill their plans, basically giving the good guys a road map for how to thwart them in the end.
But Kull manages to return to Valusia. During an eclipse, Akivasha takes on her demon form, making it hard for Taligaro to kill her. Kull shows up, kills Enaros, and wounds the general. Zareta passes the Breath of Valka to Kull by kissing him. He, in turn, performs the same act on Akivasha in her monster form, making this image even worse than the ending of the Star Trek: Voyager episode “Threshold” (and to think, this was before Sorbo became obsessed with kissing every woman he saw on Andromeda). The Breath of Valka, now inside her, kills her. Taligaro makes one last attempt to take Zareta. It proves unsuccessful, though, as Kull kills him.
Even though he’s showed nothing but indifference to her all through the movie, the story ends with Kull making Zareta his queen. He then announces that slavery in Valusia is over, as he uses his trusty axe to smash those stone tablets, to Tue’s horror—although that horrified look may be from watching Sorbo act.
The film’s screenwriter, Charles Edward Pogue (whose previous writing credits include The Fly and the underrated Dragonheart), would go on to express disappointment with the film after its release, saying that studio interference led to a less than satisfying final product. That stance is certainly understandable, as the film never draws the viewer into its fantasy world or into the plight of its characters the way Conan the Barbarian and other great fantasy films did.
Some have said that, as Sorbo was riding high with Hercules at the time, the suits were trying to make the film into a more lighthearted romp like that show, thinking its big fanbase would embrace this movie. This would probably explain why Sorbo pretty much plays his role with too much of his tongue-in-cheek, although Kull, like all of his non-Hercules roles, isn’t very likable or appealing.
The reason Arnold became a star with Conan is because he played the role in a dead-straight manner. Those films also benefited from a nice supporting cast, including the great James Earl Jones as the villainous Thulsa Doom. Arnold knew what he could project as an actor, and used those traits to his full advantage when he played Conan. This is why Arnold ended up thriving as an actor during the ’80s and ’90s (ironically, Kull was released the same year Arnold appeared in Batman & Robin, which proves we all make mistakes). The goodwill he garnered during that period would, likewise, lead to him becoming governor of California.
Kull, on the other hand, pretty much ended Sorbo’s big screen career before it began. While Sorbo’s gone out of his way in recent years to insist that the only reason he doesn’t have much of a movie career is because he’s a Christian, the fact that he loves to remind people over and over again (both onscreen and off) that he played Hercules in a TV show which became the most watched in the world hasn’t exactly resulted in displaying much acting range on his part.
The rest of the film’s cast doesn’t make much of an impression either. The only one who’s actually fun to watch is Tia Carrere, who seems to be enjoying playing a character far removed from her famous roles in Wayne’s World and True Lies.
The SFX and editing aren’t exactly impressive either. But worst of all is the musical score. I have nothing against rock music for a movie, even one that takes place long before rock music existed. As much as I disliked Transformers: The Movie, I always loved the “Instruments of Destruction” song on its soundtrack. But in this film, the score is just distracting, and like Sorbo’s mannerisms, are only a reminder that one is watching a film made in the ’90s.
On a sadder note, this was to be the only movie directed by John Nicolella, who had previously directed television. He died just months after Kull‘s release.
I don’t know if Raffaella De Laurentiis had hoped this film would get a sequel like Conan did for her father Dino. But it failed to do so because the film itself is way too jokey, whereas Conan never let any flamboyance overshadow its narrative.