Arts

Cult Movie: Paul Verhoeven's Flesh + Blood gory, sleazy and sometimes brilliant

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rutger Hauer in Flesh + Blood
Ralph McLean

WITH director Paul Verhoeven you know exactly what you're going to get. Be it Basic Instinct, Robocop, Showgirls or Starship Troopers the vibe is generally the same. Outrageous, overblown, morally questionable and often hugely entertaining, his work is shockingly violent, brilliantly brash and always a stranger to the concept of subtlety.

With Flesh + Blood, his 1985 American big-screen debut, it's all there in the title.

For 'Flesh' read 'sex' and for 'Blood' read 'violence' because this might just be the Dutch director's sleaziest, goriest and occasionally most brilliant creation ever.

Set in a plague-ravaged Western Europe in 1501, it tells the story of a small band of mercenary peasants led by the enigmatic Martin (Rutger Hauer) who storm and reclaim a fortified castle for its former owner Arnolfini (Fernando Hilbeck) in return for a huge reward.

When their rich benefactor betrays them and throws them out of the city by force Martin swears bloody revenge on the nobleman and his son Steven (Tom Burlinson). Their bloodthirsty attempt at putting one over the evil Arnolfini includes accidentally kidnapping Steven's fiancée Agnes (Jennifer Jason Leigh). When Agnes swiftly becomes Martin's lover, Steven then swears to wipe the mercenary gang from the face of the Earth forever.

Hollywood has delved deep into medieval history before of course but rarely with the grim coating of dirt and decay that's visible here. Brutal, brazen and utterly amoral, this is the Middle Ages in all their bleak and bloody glory.

Some may find the violence, and particularly the grim sexual violence, hard to stomach but in Verhoeven's world that's really just the tip of the repugnant iceberg.

Over the 128-minute running time of Flesh + Blood there are rotting plague victims, dead babies, mentally deranged nuns, drooling priests and all manner of sexual violence and horror to contend with. The general air of degradation and debauchery that hangs over just about every scene here is relentless.

Rutger Hauer (unforgettable in everything from Blade Runner to The Hitcher) is hugely enigmatic as the puffed-up and power-crazed mercenary Martin and Jennifer Jason Leigh does well with a role that's so underwritten it would disappear from view if you turned it sideways.

The sheer savagery of medieval Europe is hammered home at every available opportunity, with not a single character displaying anything close to a moral compass. Wealth, women, land and food are taken by the strongest while the weakest fall by the wayside. There are no Hollywood happy endings here.

The result is a none more bleak vision of humanity gone seriously astray but it's also undeniably entertaining in a wildly non-thinking 1980s fantasy adventure kind of way. Like most of Verhoeven's work, it's questionable on many fronts and quite often crosses the line of what's acceptable in terms of mainstream cinema action movies but it still manages to be vastly entertaining all the same and the action pops off the screen with vitality and attitude.

You might need a good shower after watching it though.

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