Verhoeven Had a Lot to Learn After ‘Flesh + Blood’

Flesh + Blood has at least this to its credit: it's not as bad as Howard the Duck.

Maybe the only thing more remarkable than the blu-ray release of 1985 schlock-fest Flesh + Blood is the fact that the film ever got made at all. Directed by Paul Verhoeven before his successes with Robocop and Starship Troopers, this movie manages to rival 1986’s Howard the Duck in terms of sheer (for lack of a better word) suckitude.

Okay, it’s not quite as bad as that, but it’s a hot mess nonetheless, and a pretty good primer in how not to make a movie.

The year is 1501 and the location is helpfully specified as “Western Europe”, but really the film is set at some murky point in “the olden days”, a time and place that owes more to Monty Python and the Holy Grail than any specific historical era. Rutger Hauer, never an actor known for particularly nuanced performance, takes center stage as Martin, a solder in the service of a down-on-his-luck nobleman named Arnolfini. “Down on his luck” in this case means “without his city and castle that he lost in the last war and now is trying to get back”. With Hauer’s help, along with a couple hundred extras, Arnolfini regains his city, but then engages in a devious betrayal that shows him for the scoundrel that he really is. Hilarity ensues, much of it fairly predictable. Viewers who remain uncertain as to whether Arnolfini gets his comeuppance will no doubt remain glued to the screen to the very end.

Amidst all the blood there is also, as the title promises, a fair amount of flesh, most of which comes in the form of a subplot involving the maidenly Agnes, who has been wedded to Steven, Arnolfini’s son. Agnes gets caught up in the revenge plot against her father-in-law, and finds herself placed in an extended damsel-in-distress scenario as a result. Do you think she’ll grow to have mixed feelings about her captors? Only time will tell.

The whole movie has a low-budget, direct-to-video cheapness to its look, with a muddy color palette and a constantly-moving camera that still manages to makes the scenes feel static. More problematic still are the performances, which are overly broad and tone-deaf in their attempt to inject levity into scenes that are entirely lacking in humor. If you get a chuckle from watching poor peasants learning how to use cutlery, then hey, this is the movie for you.

The script’s occasional forays into darker imagery or tone fail utterly as a result of the director’s inability to resist a corny joke or hammy performance. When the movie swerves into something genuinely disturbing, such as an act of sexual violence, this juxtaposition is even more jarring. The presentation of gang rape is never something to be taken lightly, and the movie’s willingness to go there is unfortunate to say the least.

Hauer does his best—which admittedly isn’t very good—with weak material, and some of the minor players are competent, such as character actor Brion James as one of the soldiers and Jack Thompson as Hawkwood, captain of the army. But Tom Burlinson’s Steven is bland beyond words (his feathered-and-layered haircut doesn’t help any), and the normally reliable Jennifer Jason Leigh as love interest Agnes is equally vapid.

Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release looks about as good as the film can, with a mostly-clear picture (although some some speckling shows up during certain shadowy scenes) and sound that is clear enough, though somewhat flat. Bonus features are surprising for such a minor film, including a lengthy featurette on the writing of the film’s score, just in case viewers who have sat through the movie haven’t heard enough of it. More interesting is the audio commentary from director Verhoeven himself, who manages a number of pithy observations and a good deal of insider info about the $6.5 million-dollar movie that he is discussing.

Fans of Verhoeven’s later work might be interested in seeing this early effort, but viewers should resist the impulse unless they are fans of “so bad it’s good” historical pictures. Even then, they’re apt to be disappointed: Flesh + Blood isn’t so bad it’s good, as much as being simply bad. Tone deaf and overacted, it nonetheless contains competent cinematography and a few genuinely compelling sequences (as when the revenge-seeking soldiers storm a castle midway through the movie). But these sequences are inevitably undermined sooner rather than later. Despite its promisingly cheesy pedigree, this is one that can be safely missed.

RATING 3 / 10