There’s a lot to like about FLESH+BLOOD, one of the earliest English films directed by Paul Verhoeven (TOTAL RECALL, STARSHIP TROOPERS). The film claims to be set in Western Europe, 1501—a claim only belied by the presence of Bruno Kirby in a supporting, but speaking, role. "Western Europe" is a violent place, and an army of mercenaries have just sacked a castle for the promise of the usual raping and pillaging. Unfortunately their commanders betray and exile the mercenaries, leaving bad feelings all about.
Vengeance is guised as religious zealotry as the mercenaries, led by a whacko priest and “Saint” Martin (Rutger Hauer) take revenge on their former commanders—and steal the king’s daughter (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Eventually the mercenaries turn a castle into their own Xanadu before the final show down with their enemies.
The plot, in other words, is relatively standard fair. The film shines in two departments—the first is Verhoeven’s unflinching dark humor. Two characters mawkishly declare their love for each other beneath to burnt, hanging corpses. In a scene reminiscent of Monty Python, a catapult is used to hurl dog meat into a besieged castle—a perplexing tactic until one learns the meat is infected with the plague. While Verhoeven has plenty of fun with his subject matter, it is nonetheless “heavy” stuff—rape, murder, and other atrocities are committed with barely a second thought by just about every character in the film. There are no “good” guys to speak of—every character is out for his or her own survival; some are just less pretentious about it.
The other highlight is Rutger Hauer’s performance. I still find myself quoting his work in BLADE RUNNER, but he’s even more convincing as a leading man. Hauer’s Martin is as imperfect as every other character but he is also the least duplicitous—for whatever that’s worth. The torpid connection between his character Leigh’s—it begins with rape, but does it ever reach romance? Or is it just fear?—is fascinating. While it may never be as well known as say, Mel Gibson’s MAD MAX, Hauer’s Martin ranks for this reviewer as one of the great anti-heroes.
FLESH+BLOOD is a top-notch film for anyone who can stomach its gratuities. It satirizes religion, class, and love without blinking an eye. Highly recommended.