Kull the Conqueror / End of Days / The Cowboy Way / The Jackal
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: FEBRUARY 21, 2023/MILL CREEK ENTERTAINMENT
Finally, these four movies all in one place!
How Kull the Conqueror (1997; starring Kevin Sorbo), End of Days (1999; starring Arnold Schwarzenegger), The Jackal (1997; starring Bruce Willis and Richard Gere), and The Cowboy Way (1994; starring Woody Harrelson and Kiefer Sutherland) relate to one another beyond being very mainstream (though very different) ‘90s action movies and the Universal Studios logos that opens them is a mystery. Yet the good folks at Mill Creek have opted to make this loud quartet available as a single, unintentionally amusing package- one they call “Epic Showdowns”! The budget-minded set consists of the four films on two Blu-ray discs. No extras, barely even any menus, except for a screen prompting you to pick one of the films. That’s it. The transfers are what they are, which is to say, they’re probably taken from whatever source Mill Creek had access to, upconverted to high definition if necessary.
What follows are film-by-film reviews of this pre-millennium Blu-ray sausage party. I’d seen none of these titles prior to receiving this set, which, frankly, is the main reason I agreed to review it. Here’s how the titles fare today…
Kull the Conqueror
DIRECTED BY JOHN NICOLELLA/1997
We’ve heard of fighting fire with fire, but this movie opens with two guys simply fighting with fire. As in, their weapons are on fire and they’re swinging them around at each other. If that sounds kinda cool, just know that in the context of 1997’s fizzle of an ancient action movie, Kull the Conqueror, the sequence isn’t exactly a scorcher.
Though the film originated as the third in the Conan series, the producers chose to pivot the material to author Robert E. Howard’s other barbarian hero, Kull, when Arnold Schwarzenegger ultimately declined. In his place, we have former Hercules: The Legendary Journeys TV star, Kevin Sorbo. Seeing how Sorbo’s on-screen currency has plummeted to the level of appearing in “Christian movies” like the pandering box office success God’s Not Dead, one could imagine spending the rest of this review taking potshots at the guy. But Sorbo is not the problem here. He has the stature, charisma, and humor to carry this rickety load… such as it is. It is, however, amusing to hear him, as Kull the Conqueror, declare, in unintentional defiance of however the God’s Not Dead makers would prefer things to be, “Let men worship what gods they will!”
Also not the problem is the film’s villain and top-billed lady, Tia Carrere (Wayne’s World). It appears she is having an absolute blast playing this supernatural pagan sorceress-creature in supermodel form. There are scenery-chewing performances and then there’s whatever Carrere is doing here. She’s a hoot to watch, seducing Kull just as he seizes the throne of whatever kingdom this is. Regarding that fling, Sorbo later sells this exchange:
Kull’s buddy: “Your bride is over 3000 years old.”
Kull: “She said she was nineteen!”
Kull the Conqueror stinks for its overuse of crappy green screen work, its unengaging story, embarrassing CG even by 1997 standards, and chronic cut corners as far as the eye can see. (A possible very serious reason may lie in the fact that its director, John Nicolella, succumbed to cancer the following year). Thankfully, it’s only an hour-and-a-half long, and looks pretty decent on this Blu-ray. With the right bunch of good-humored friends, this could be a hugely fun movie to heckle. This exchange from Kull might just sum up the whole nonsensical experience:
Suspicious Guard: “Something stinks!”
Other Guard: “Well it’s not me!”
(THUD! Kull takes them out by surprise!)
Kull: “It’s me!!”
End of Days
DIRECTED BY PETER HYAMS/1999
In the uncertainty-drenched final years of the second millennium A.D., the Devil was really having a moment at at the movies. Fueled by baseless prophesy, fear mongering news stories about global computer failure, and rampant good ol’ fashioned doomsday paranoia, it seemed all the bright and shining promises of the year 2000 and beyond were going straight to Hell. From 1999’s Catholic freakout Stigmata to the Faustian legal horror of 1998’s The Devil’s Advocate; from the controversial religious fervor of Kevin Smith’s Dogma to the pending Middle Earth villainy of Sauron and his all-seeing eye, moviegoers were assured struggles with the Beast. What a thief, what a pest.
Even the knotty crime fable The Usual Suspects (1995) warned us that Satan’s greatest trick was convincing the world he doesn’t exist. That warning must’ve really took for Arnold Schwarzenegger, who’s last action heroics before Y2K is the big-budget work of Satanic horror fiction, End of Days. (Not to be confused with something called Thor: End of Days  which is not to be confused with any actual Thor movie). Director/Cinematographer Peter Hyams and company must’ve really appreciated The Usual Suspects, as it’s referenced several other times throughout.
Much to star Schwarzenegger’s reported chagrin, End of Days turned out to be a large-scale spectacle that’s so drearily rendered that its largesse is immediately overshadowed by all the muted greys and forced early-Fincher grime. Awash in fire and brimstone, soot and smoke, and dim bulbs in insufficient light fixtures, Schwarzenegger plays depressive cop Jericho Cane who’s haunted by the loss of his wife and daughter. The real man of the hour, Satan in the flesh, is played by Gabriel Byrne- another connection to not only The Usual Suspects, but also Stigmata that same year. Byrne plays it big and cocky as his thousand-year plot to reign on Earth is scheduled for midnight, January 1, 2000. (“Is that the Eastern time zone?”, Cane snidely asks before we can of goodguy preacher Rod Steiger. Yes. Yes, it is).
The evil plan consists of kidnapping the marked and chosen twenty-one-year-old girl (Robin Tunney) on New Year’s Eve so that the Devil can copulate with her, thereby unleashing the aforementioned big badness. Cane, angry with God and having his turned his back on the church, opts to do battle with Mr. Scratch using his tried-and-true arsenal of firearms. (Including the then-new Glock 34 pistol, which was ostensibly introduced to be promoted in this film). There’s something to be said about the manner in which End of Days conflates gun toting heroics with fighting the ultimate “good fight”, as well as its resignation of gender roles with Cane’s fast-firing phallic firearms and the girl’s threatened place as the Devil’s mate. But then, as holy man Rod Steiger keeps imploring, “You can’t fight evil with evil!” Does that apply to Arnold’s big guns, even when the Devil emerges as a massive and fiery horrible CGI/Stan Winston creation? Have a little faith, son!
While most notable for being the most high-profile of the Y2K-panic movies, End of Days proved surprisingly watchable as an R-rated action vehicle for indestructible Schwarzenegger. The actor is as effective as he ever has been, sometimes bordering on good. Although the dark look of the movie was there from the start, its levels may’ve gotten boosted in places for home video. The A/V here offers little to complain about. The mostly practical action sequences, with the exception of the CGI-heavy one at the end, are more satisfying than most in every Marvel movie these days. Like Arnold’s character in the film, End of Days got crucified- but it’s hard to say exactly why.
The Cowboy Way
DIRECTED BY GREGG CHAMPION/1994
For all these years, I’ve assumed that 1994’s The Cowboy Way was a straight-ahead comedy. You know, a good ol’ bull ridin’ shit-kickin’ buddy-buddy chucklefest. The kind that’s entirely forgettable. Which would explain why this studio-generated Woody Harrelson/Kiefer Sutherland vehicle seemingly disappeared into a hole one lousy week after it dropped. (That’s just my own memory/non-experience with The Cowboy Way; feel free to correct me on its box office prowess).
The Cowboy Way is those things, but it turns out it’s also got a big fish-out-of-water angle, as well as being half action movie. Harrelson and Sutherland play championship New Mexico rodeo riders Pepper and Sonny. Pepper is a ladies’ man with a dimwitted streak; Sonny is smarter and down to business. Both, however, have no notion of life outside of their dusty rural corner of the world. When their good friend goes missing in New York City, it’s up to Sonny and Pepper to go find him. When their rescue mission turns into a murder investigation, The Cowboy Way shifts into mid-budget Hollywood studio early-‘90s action-movie mode. Meaning, punches are thrown, shots are fired, and there might even be a chase or two through busy Manhattan. None of it is particularly satisfying.
Thankfully, all parties involved seem to realize that The Cowboy Way sinks or swims with the interplay of the two leads. Harrelson and Sutherland get the job done in this capacity, even as the movie seems to be tonally shifting around them, always trying to take our boys with it. They somehow remain steadfast in their portrayals as the screenplay has them acting as dumb bumpkins one moment (booted from the Waldorf Astoria, which they never realize is a luxury hotel, they go and make camp in Central Park. ‘Cause that’s the cowboy way!), but clever and resourceful the next. (They’re good in a brawl and doggone if that doesn’t come in handy! ‘Cause that’s also the cowboy way!)
The movie never does figure itself out, so neither can we. Harrelson is a bit too muggy and Sutherland borders on bland at times, but The Cowboy Way preserves as a not-all-bad time capsule of action-comedy. Not the same can be said of the film’s transfer to Blu-ray, which looks simply gawdawful. The only movie of these four “Epic Showdowns” to predate the DVD era, The Cowboy Way looks like a VHS transfer. It is by far the ugliest presentation of the set.
DIRECTED BY MICHAEL CATON-JONES/1997
I’ve never seen Fred Zinnemann’s classic 1973 thriller The Day of the Jackal, so I can’t give an informed take on just how faithful this 1997 remake is to it. What I do know is that Zinnemann didn’t much care one way or the other; he just hated the fact that his film was being remade, period. The Jackal is a big expensive glossy Bruce Willis/Richard Gere vehicle that no one involved seems to have had a good time making. If this was a passion project for anyone, that passion must’ve dried up long before shooting wrapped.
Watching this 124-minute procedural, I can’t much say I cared one way or the other. Willis takes the lead as the titular Jackal, an international assassin and master of disguise so slippery, only two people in the entire world could possibly identify him. One of the two is Gere’s character, Declan Mulqueen. Declan leverages his knowledge of the Jackal and willingness to help the FBI catch him in order to protect his ex, Isabella (Mathilda May), who is the other of the two.
Aesthetically, the whole movie wields the same slick verisimilitude that Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible has, but framed up and wrought in a completely pedestrian manner. Willis sells his character’s ability to brandish multiple identities, master all kinds of weapons, and effortlessly go from one country to another without incident. He also sells the fact that the Jackal is truly a cold-blooded sociopath who doesn’t hesitate for a second if a life, any life, must be taken. Gere, however, is not at his best. His hero character comes off more like an aging handsome movie star going through the paces of getting the bad guy. He also speaks with an Irish accent, which is supposed to be charming but is instead kind of annoying. Sidney Poitier plays the top FBI honcho guy. He’s actually in the movie a lot more than expected, although this role does have the dubious distinction of being his final one for the big screen.
Scuttlebutt has it that initially, Willis and Gere were initially approached to play each other’s roles, but switched. One can only presume that Gere didn’t want to be accused of repeating verbatim his shooting-a-guy-through-the-stairs gag that he pulled off in No Mercy (1986). As is, I was engaged with maybe one-third of The Jackal, bored out of my mind by the rest. It doesn’t exactly move along at any kind of clip, though it is a glaring reminder of just how much mainstream movies have changed. This sort of total artifice posing as gritty reality just wouldn’t fly today. It is interesting to see pre-fame, fresh-faced Jack Black and J.K. Simmons in prominent roles, though.
On a technical level, this Blu-ray transfer looks quite nice. It shares a disc with 1994’s The Cowboy Way, which looks lousy. The difference seems to be that The Jackal was released theatrically in the DVD era; The Cowboy Way predates that. But then, this is Blu-ray… more than twice the alleged resolution of DVD. What gives, Mill Creek?