Monday, January 26, 2009

"The Last Templar": did studio bean counters weaken a good idea for epic film?

The network mini-series used to be a more common format for long complicated political and adventure novels, or particularly historical novels. Among the most notable are the monumental settings of Herman Wouk’s “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance” in the 80s and 90s on ABC (the “novel for television” concept). A few of Stephen King’s biggest novels have made effective series, most of all “Storm of the Century” (oh, that was sold in book form as a screenplay). Another good example is Colleen McCollough’s Australian epic “The Thorn Birds.” Sydney Sheldon has sometimes been successfully serialized as in “If Tomorrow Comes.”

So, this week, NBC put on the two-part (four hours) “The Last Templar,” directed by Paolo Barzman, based on the adventure novel by Raymond Khoury. Mira Sorvino plays Tess Chaykin, an overly campy and jovial archeologist following in her father’s footsteps. Her “partner” and near-lover will be FBI agent Sean Daley, played by a handsome Scott Foley. As the movie opens, an art opening in New York is attacked by knights on horseback, who plunder and steal a mechanical computer called a decoder.

The two are led on a worldwide chain-letter chase for a mysterious document left by a Templar Knight who escaped a 12th century Muslim battle in Jerusalem. The film is interspersed with backstories of the battle and hiding of the document. The adventure takes them into a buried volcanic ruin that almost collapses on them, and uses an astrolabe to locate the exact document. There is also a present day sea battle and storm to parallel the one in the 12th century.

This sounds like a mixture of “Da Vinci code” and “National Treasure.” Actually, the plot is more like some of the novels of Irving Wallace in the 1960s (I read some of them in the barracks in the Army), that tended to mix Cold War and Vatican politics. (During the Reagan years there would be some substance to that, as the Vatican was very crucial to the fall of the Soviet Union.)

Here, the idea sounds better than the movie is, partly because of the somewhat corny acting and presentation. We watch the worldwide action on a 4:3 television screen, material that ought to be experienced in 2.35 to 1. By comparison, “Da Vinci code” is a real movie; this one seems like a kind of dessert. Why did Universal decide to make this as a mini-series rather than as a close to 3 hour theatrical film? I don’t know how the bean counters determined that the Nielsen ratings would give the studio more revenue than ticket sales (which are doing fairly well in a recession economy). In any case, the creative effort seemed to be diluted by very numbers-driven business decisions. This movie comes out in January, after the awards season, because it just seems limp. Or, perhaps the studio knew, that this just wasn’t that good.

The mystery document, in Aramaic, apparently denies the Virgin Birth, and even the idea of Grace. No wonder the Vatican wants to capture it. It sounds like there’s an area for movie making on the idea that Joseph had to fend off the rumors and then become the father to a child that he did not himself procreate.

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