Italy, 1501. Rome was undergoing the Renaissance and producing some of its greatest art, but elsewhere the country was barbarous. Bands of mercenaries roamed the countryside, trading in violence, making deals with ambitious noblemen and breaking them just as quickly. Paul Verhoeven's d├ębut Hollywood feature follows one of those bands, led by the inimitable Rutger Hauer.

It's not a pretty picture. Verhoeven never bowed to Hollywood's moral conventions but here he is at his most blunt, depicting a group of characters whose powerful desires and survival instincts frequently override any civilised impulses they may conceal. At times they are unexpectedly likeable, funny and engaging, which presents a challenge to the viewer; yet ultimately we stay with them not out of sympathy but because of their intensity, because they are so boldly drawn.

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Hauer is Martin, a mercenary soldier who rises to the status of warlord after surviving a brutal double-cross. Jennifer Jason Leigh is Agnes, the virgin noblewoman he rapes, who goes on to become his lover and uncertain ally. Tom Burlinson is Steven, her betrothed, whose pledge to save her, Searchers-style, grows obsessive to the point where we wonder if he will kill her. They'e all complex, conflicted characters, backed by a strong supporting cast that includes Jack Thompson as a tired soldier trying to quit and Susan Tyrrell as a prostitute with a shrewd understanding of power. Together they travel through a series of conflicts, observe pivotal moments in the development of modern warfare, and face the Black Death.

The film is crude; there's no doubt about that, but it seems appropriate to the subject matter. The copious nudity recalls Verhoeven's background in erotica, but Leigh shows she can give a sex scene the emotional depth and disturbing character that she would go on to use to great effect in the still bleaker Last Exit To Brooklyn. Still more copious is the violence, with no holds barred when it comes to gore - this is one of the few films of its era whose 18 certificate has not come to seem ridiculous. Everything is beautifully photographed and segued together with Verhoeven's usual flair.

On the level of grand gestures and mythic narrative, the film is spectacular. In other ways, it struggles a little. The meandering storyline may be more realistic than the usual Hollywood formula but it doesn't always satisfy. Wavering loyalties and betrayals only create tension up to a point, beyond which they begin to test the viewer's patience. Yet for all its flaws this remains an intriguing early work by a highly capable director that proves you don't need a big budget to tell an epic tale.

Reviewed on: 21 Jun 2012
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A band of mercenaries rape and pillage their way through 16th century Italy, with the Black Death at their heels.
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Director: Paul Verhoeven

Writer: Paul Verhoeven, Gerard Soeteman

Starring: Rutger Hauer, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Burlinson, Susan Tyrrell, Jack Thompson, Fernando Hilbeck

Year: 1985

Runtime: 126 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: Spain, US, Netherlands


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