You can almost smell the sweat, blood, and horse shit.
Epic period films set in long ago times when men fought, women obeyed, and animals cowered in fear of being eaten, ridden, or worn are something of a rarity these days. Hollywood certainly isn’t churning them out, but it should surprise no one that Russia has the sub-genre covered. The Scythian is as earthy an action film as you could hope for as a man fights for his family across rough and muddy landscapes and alongside an enemy who wants him dead.
Central Eurasia is a land in dwindling chaos as a new regime takes control of the land and chokes out pagan dissenters. The once-majestic and feared Scythians have been reduced in number and forced to exist as thieves, murderers, and wanderers. When skilled members of the fading tribe abduct a woman and newborn belonging to the Russian prince’s right-hand soldier Lyutobor (Aleksey Faddeev) the warrior is forced into a quest both of rescue and revenge. He finds an unlikely and untrustworthy ally of sorts in Marten (Aleksandr Kuznetsov), one of the Scythian assassins who took part in the abduction before being left behind, and together they seek the truth behind the vile act that brought them together.
Blood and testosterone spill in equal measure in The Scythian, and neither is in vain as the resulting film feels like a big, brawny adventure from the 80s/90s — and that’s a not a bad thing. There’s a nod to history in its story of the Christian onslaught across the landscape and the fate of those who don’t get in line with the one god policy, but director/co-writer Rustam Mosafir is most interested in delivering an epic action film where muscle, steel, and princely power reign supreme.
There’s plenty of all three as clashes big and small paint the screen with blood, violence, and more than a little style. Cinematographer Dzmitry Karnachyk captures the action well in both broad battles and close-up kills. An early skirmish sees Marten demonstrating his killer moves against multiple enemies, and the camera weaves in and around the carnage as if taking part in a dance. Later fights see swordplay and brute strength at odds with slightly more magical antics — Russia’s love affair with big, burly bears is in full effect here — but for the most part the action is grounded in the elements and all the more thrilling for it.
An unexpected plus in the film comes courtesy of some elaborate and eye-catching design work. As Lyutobor and Marten traverse the landscape they cross paths with characters from different tribes, religions, and authorities, and the design work of both makeup and costume is striking. The film’s core story is familiar to fans of genre and drama, but details like these add to the movie’s feel as something truly taking place in another land and time.
Faddeev is the lead and does solid work, but as the hero/husband/father he’s stuck in a fairly flat role. Kuznetsov has no such restriction and succeeds in instantly becoming the film’s charismatic center. From his mohawk to his tribal ink to his Last of the Mohicans-like leathers he’s a compelling sight, and his character is equally captivating as a man whose own loyalty to god and man alike is tested.
The Scythian is old-school action/adventure entertainment with a serious enough throughline to give it dramatic and historical credibility without ruining the fun.
[Editor’s note: The film is releasing in the US on August 14th, 2018 under the title The Last Warrior, and it will be available on VOD as well as Blu-ray/DVD.]