'Clash of Empires' is a "special" film. A very "special" film indeed. So "special," in fact, that it should probably never be watched... by anyone, ever. OK, that may be a bit harsh, and while it certainly isn't quite that bad, it definitely isn't good. With that said, if you must watch it, be prepared for several questions to swirl through your mind. Why does this movie exist? Who thought this movie seemed like a good idea? When will this movie be over? Why isn't this movie over yet? Can I turn it off now? No? Why not? What about now? No? Why won't you let me turn it off?! Who are you?! These are all perfectly normal questions, and you shouldn't be ashamed to ask them. Unfortunately, it seems the answers will forever remain elusive. A Malaysian production with an international cast, this is an incompetent, sometimes embarrassingly mediocre attempt at an action epic. The film continually defies reason and patience with some truly awful scripting, acting, and production value, leading to an action packed but mostly worthless effort.
Set in 120 AD, the story follows a Roman prince named Marcus (Gavin Stenhouse, coming across like a very poor man's Orlando Bloom) as he entrusts a warrior, Merong (Stephen Rahman Hughes), to guide and protect him on his journey to meet up with his bride to be, a Chinese princess (Jing Lusi). When said princess is kidnapped by evil Garudan pirates with magic powers, conflict ensues and Merong must embrace his destiny and save the day. What follows is a series of sword slashing, martial arts infused fight scenes and battle sequences that are lodged in between painful attempts at a story. Loosely based on Malay history and legend, the script unfortunately unfolds like it was written by an imaginative but fairly illiterate ten year old doing a history report, rather than a legitimate screenwriter interpreting the tales. Littered with cliched characters, stilted dialogue, uneven pacing, cheesy attempts at intentional comedy, and hilarious occurrences of unintentional comedy, the film sadly fails to meet any of its sometimes lofty and well meaning goals.
Almost nothing about the story works. A horrible introductory voice over and montage sets the tone and attempts to explain the "history" behind the film, setting up the oh so complicated plot, but the whispery narration (that sounds like death itself is hovering over the actor) is out of place and does little to actually clarify anything. The mishmash of Roman and Asian cultures and characters is handled very poorly and any attempt at historical accuracy is seemingly tossed aside early on (though in the film's defense, this is a movie that features sorcery and magic amulets, so I doubt historical accuracy was much of a concern). Our protagonist, Merong, has moments of personality, with the script and actor seemingly going for a lovable rogue like quality, but for the most part his attempts at charisma fall flat. His arc is strangely glossed over as well, with his most important developments dealt with in another quick montage, so that we can jump to more battles. The rest of the characters are also pretty terrible, and the acting -- well, the acting is something else entirely. With an international cast, some of the odd performances are probably the result of a language barrier, but the worst offenders are actually the actors who play the Roman characters, who seem better suited for dinner theater than they do an action epic. Of course even the greatest thespians would have trouble with this script, which features some of the most atrocious dialogue I've heard in some time.
Quite possibly the worst aspect of the entire movie is the relationship between the Roman prince, Marcus, and his would be Chinese bride, Princess Meng Li Hua. In a scene that is derivative of literally every other conflicting romance to every grace the silver screen, the princess and her servant run away in order to avoid her forced marriage. When Marcus catches up to them, Meng at first pretends to be her lowly handmaiden (she must have seen this tactic on TV) but after a few minutes she is somehow won over by Marcus's charm (must have something to do with his wholly blank expression of perpetual confusion and his whiny, wooden delivery) and the two end up instantly smitten. The chemistry they share together is… nonexistent. In fact, their lack of chemistry forms a relationship so laughable, unappealing, and unbelievable that it makes kittens cry. Kittens, I say!
Though one of the most expensive Malaysian productions ever completed, that money isn't always evident on screen. Wardrobe and armor, particularly those of the Romans, look like cheap, plastic Halloween costumes that make the actors wearing them look like little kids playing dress up. Sets mostly lack any real sense of design or visual interest and the movie relies heavily on bad compositing, CG, and color correction in order to try and hide some of its more egregious budgetary restrictions and enhance its scope. The score is also problematic and annoying, with music cues chiming in incessantly, playing along with every minor development and action like a Bugs Bunny cartoon. The only real, minor saving grace are the action scenes. Though stupid and filled with silly CG blood, the actual choreography has moments of entertainment value and fun. Of course, while the sword slashing may have some intermittent excitement, there is a complete lack of investment in any of the battles' outcomes due to underdeveloped characters. Wait, come to think of it, that isn't true. I was somewhat invested. I actually wanted the good guys to die.
'Clash of Empires' is a poor, pedestrian movie that unfortunately lacks any substantial redeeming qualities. The characters are one dimensional, the performances and dialogue are laughable, and while occasionally fun, even the many action scenes are fairly mediocre. Sure, it's mostly harmless, isn't really meant to be taken seriously (at least, I hope it isn't), and is never quite offensively bad, but there just isn't enough here to actually like. Perhaps there really is an American audience anxious for a movie like this, but as far as I'm concerned, this is simply one of those foreign, partially English language productions that is doomed to remain a video store oddity, a bottom shelf curiosity that stares you down every time you walk by it on the shelf (assuming there are still video stores where you live), mocking you, stimulating your latent masochistic tendencies, daring you to rent it so that you may see it for yourself and ultimately answer that one, all important question -- is it really that bad? Let me save you the time and money. Yes. Yes it is.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Image brings 'Clash of Empires' to Blu-ray on a BD-25 disc housed in a standard case. The packaging indicates that the release is Region A compatible, but curiously does not indicate that the film sucks, which it should, cause it does.
The movie is presented in a 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Shot digitally in high definition, the image actually looks strong early on, but dips in quality periodically as the film continues.
The source is clean, though there is some noise visible in a few nighttime scenes. Other artifacts, including isolated posterization and what looks like minimal blocking, also creep in, particularly in shots of the night sky, but don't detract too much from the proceedings. Detail itself is actually very strong, with nice clarity in wide shots and strong features in close-ups. What really hurts the presentation, however, are the movie's overall cheap visuals, horrible color grading, and poor effects and compositing. Many scenes have been heavily processed with post production filters to try and mask budgetary restrictions in a heavily stylized appearance. As a result, some sequences are drenched in ugly, monochromatic color schemes that present a washed out and unappealing look, robbing the image of detail, color, depth, and pop. When filters are kept to a minimum, colors and depth are actually pretty good. Black levels and contrast tend to vary wildly depending on the specific look used, and can often appear elevated, blown out, or conversely underexposed.
While the main problems with the video are a result of the filmmakers choices and not necessarily the transfer itself (though there are technical issues as well), the image is still often fairly ugly. This may have been a big budget production for Malaysia, but it can't compete with similar American efforts, and the cost effective techniques stick out like a sore thumb. Certain shots do offer some impressive depth and detail, but too many scenes are soaked in unsightly color correction and mediocre CG work.
The film is provided with an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track along with optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles. It should be noted that though labeled English, a large portion of the movie is actually in… well, another language, presumably Malay, though since it's not labeled I can't say for sure. Hardcoded English subtitles are provided for these portions. While the track is rather lively, there are some issues that hold it back.
The main problem with the mix is the dialogue. Speech is at times mixed far too low in relation to the other elements, and while I actually came to see this as a blessing, those who actually care about what's being said may find it really annoying. Surround use is pretty decent, and the various fight scenes and battles feature an active and full soundscape. Sword slashes, crashing waves, screams, and punches all hit with adequate fidelity and immersion. With that said, some of the design choices seem a little forced and unnatural, with a few effects hitting the rears for no apparent reason. Bass has some solid but not impressive kick and dynamic range is serviceable.
Like the video, the mix has a somewhat amateur quality, leading to some annoying balance issues and unnatural effects. Still, the track does manage to provide an exciting and even occasionally immersive experience in its action scenes, resulting in an uneven but still decent audio presentation.
In order to retain the film's mystique of awe inspiring perfection, it seems Image has decided to let the movie simply speak for itself. Clearly any behind-the-scenes footage, featurettes, or commentary tracks would only serve to demystify and ruin the experience. I must say, I think Image made the right decision in this case. No supplements was definitely the way to go.
'Clash of Empires' is an amateur, laughable, and just plain dumb film. Some action scenes carry a small amount of entertainment value, but the movie still lacks any real appeal. Video quality has nice detail but the style of the images is occasionally ugly, and the audio is uneven. With no supplements, and the movie being what it is, this disc is easily one to skip.