For thirty years I have waited. Patiently have I waited for the day that director Albert Pyun would finally get around to making Tales of an Ancient Empire. For the uninitiated, Tales of an Ancient Empire is the sequel long ago promised at the close of Sword and the Sorcerer, one of the greatest Conan rip-offs ever made. Now the wait is over. The only question is… was it worth the wait. The answer? Yes… and no… but mostly… no.
The plot has none other than Kevin Sorbo and his long lost siblings gathering together to go on an adventure. Together, they must find their father and slay an evil vampire queen. This undead debutante is none other than the daughter of the evil sorcerer from the original film.
There is a lot to dislike about Tales of an Ancient Empire. For starters, the prologue runs on way too long and is hampered with an awful lot of narration and cheap green screened effects. I will say the sight of Michael Pare dressed as a samurai pretending to kill invisible monsters against a fake backdrop is good for a laugh however. At one point Pare says: “Do you realize how silly this looks?” I hope that was an in-joke on Pyun’s part.
Another thing that stinks about the prologue is that we hear all this great talk about ripping vampire babies out of their mother’s wombs, but we never see it. Instead, we get some crummy illustrations that look like a bargain bin version of a Marvel motion comic. Sadly, this will not be the last time we get gypped out of seeing something cool in this movie.
As the prologue gives way to the actual film, the flick starts to improve by leaps and bounds. There’s a cool scene where some poor saps unearth the evil vampire queen that harkens back to the original film. It’s a testament to just how amazing something as simple as actual SETS can improve a movie.
Things only get better from there. We also get a great bar fight with Kevin Sorbo and some buff dude. Kevin totally kills it in this scene. Nobody; and I mean nobody plays a knavish rogue like Kevin Sorbo. Is this performance up to snuff with his hilarious turn as the big game hunter in Never Cry Werewolf? Not quite, but he certainly comes close.
While some scenes suffer from some choppy editing and too many flashbacks, there are others that show us brief glimpses of what could’ve been had Pyun had more time and a bigger budget. Sure, Tales is maddeningly uneven, but there are some moments here that nicely evoke the original in terms of atmosphere and lighting. In addition to the aforementioned vampire chick awakening scene, there’s a cool bit where she attacks a bunch of people in the catacombs.
But just as the movie starts ramping up towards its climax, the whole thing just shits the bed in record time. Not only are we cheated out of a finale of any kind (we get a bunch of cardboard cutouts and production sketches substituting as a “climax”), but the film ends with a long non-ending of a chick wandering around a desert. It’s pathetic.
One thing that sorta puzzled me too about the whole deal was all the stuff involving the vampires. I mean the first flick didn’t have vampires in it, so why should this one? Why move away from the sorcery angle that made the first one so popular to focus on vampires? All I can think of is that it must’ve been the Twilight influence. Still, it gives us an excuse to see some topless vampire girls putting the bite on people.
Tales of an Ancient Empire has a lot in common with another sequel to a 1982 masterpiece; Tron: Legacy. While it’s not the mammoth disappointment that film was, it does suffer from a lot of the same flaws. The biggest among them is that the story is awfully thin and feels like it’s bridging to a bigger (and better) movie. Then of course, there’s the fact that the film’s beloved character from the original gets an appalling lack of screen time. I mean what is the deal with the conspicuous lack of Talon in this movie? Instead of being front and center like he should be, Lee Horsely is given only the briefest of cameos. How the Hell can they do that to Talon? And adding insult to injury, they don’t even call him Talon! They call him “The Stranger”! Double You Tee Eff?!?
As a sequel to Sword and the Sorcerer, Tales of an Ancient Empire leaves something to be desired. As a 21st century Albert Pyun film, it’s not so bad. It’s easily the best one of his I’ve seen in a while. For one, it offers up a veritable Who’s Who of Pyun mainstays. There’s Kickboxer 2’s Sasha Mitchell, Nemesis’ Olivier Gruner, Ticker’s Norbert Weisser, and Captain America’s Scott Paulin just to name a few. So if you’re a fan of Pyun’s work, you should have fun seeing all these guys together in one place.
As bad as much of the movie is, I did cheer out loud when the mythic triple-bladed sword was finally (albeit briefly) utilized. Yeah, Tales of an Ancient Empire ain’t great, but I can’t remember the last time I cheered in a movie, so make of that what you will. Still, I wish this was a big budget theatrically released sequel from 1985 instead of a low budget three decades too late DTV sequel.
Sorbo naturally gets the best line of the movie when he sister urges him to tag along with her on her quest and he says, “Your tale holds a certain fancy, but I’m in need of coin!”