The Hun Also Rises: A Bloody, Boffo 'Attila'

Category: Attila Reviews | Posted by: admin
Article Date: January 30, 2001 | Publication: The Washington Post | Author: Tom Shales, Washington Post Staff Writer
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Oh Attila the Hun was a very fine Hun, a honey of a Hun was he. He pillaged and he plundered and he ravaged and he sacked but 'twas never never late for tea.

Perhaps you remember that wee little rhyme from your youth. If so, you had a very strange upbringing, because I just now made it up. We of the TV Critic Community are too seldom moved to poetry by the shows we review -- for which editors as well as readers are now saying, "Thank God."

Even so -- "Attila" deserves some sort of special treatment because it's definitely a big leap upward for basic cable. As historical epics go, this one's quite the hun-dinger, heh heh heh (there are many more to come, we warn you), visually impressive as few cable movies have ever been.

Atty airs in two parts on the popular USA Network, tonight and tomorrow night at 9, and quite the splashy bash it is.

Filmed in Lithuania with the kind of "cast of thousands" that movies used to brag about (no doubt a large part of the Lithuanian army was enlisted for the huge battle scenes), "Attila" takes advantage of the fact that while everybody seems to have heard of this illustrious warrior-ruler, relatively few of us know much about him.

For example: Were you aware that as a 10-year-old in the 5th century, Attila was known as "Atta Boy"? Well, he wasn't, but he might have been, especially as played by the bright young actor Rollo Weeks. According to the film, the young Hun had a traumatic youth, witnessing the savage murder of his own father at the hands of, what else, savage murderers. They are also card-carrying members of the marauding hordes league. Marauding hordes of what? Of other Huns. Yes, Hun hordes. And if you've ever had them trample your garden, you know what damage they can do.

Apparently Hun tribes had a hard time resisting the urge to wage war on one another. What they needed was a Rodney the Hun to ask, "Can we all get along?" Instead they got an Attila, who astutely deduced that it would make far more sense for Huns to fight the Romans than to be forever skewering one another.

"Attila" succeeds despite the fact that the actor in the lead role, Gerard Butler, is its weakest link. Something sorta Hunderful he ain't. Butler seems uninterested and ineffectual. No fun Hun he. More of a ho-hum Hun actually. Maybe he needed more training -- someone to say, "Get thee to a Hunnery" before filming began.

When Butler stands next to a commandingly virile presence like Steven Berkoff, who plays Rua the Hun, or Powers Boothe, who plays a wily and double-dealing Roman, he seems especially wimpy. Cast perhaps for his pecs, Butler makes a better impression when partially disrobed. He even looks good in a didy, which is apparently what your top Huns wore to bed. No wonder Butler is already being called "Attila the Hunk."

He's at his best when leading his men into battle and swinging his clangety-bangety sword -- any scene that doesn't involve dialogue. He's at his worst when shorn of his stubble and briefly slicked up at a Roman bath in Part 1; suddenly we're looking at Skippy the Hun, not Attila.

Executive-produced on a hefty reported budget of $ 14 million by real movie producers Sean Daniel and James Jacks, "Attila" has a richer ambiance than many of the films made for the "big four" broadcast networks, much less the usual bargain-basement cable movie. Director Dick Lowry keeps the energy level high, and here and there inserts a deft or nifty touch. For some reason, Part 1 has a good deal more oomph and turmoil than Part 2.

Robert Cochran's script is lean and smart and full of backstage-at-the-palace intrigues. Occasionally he slips in what could be taken as a comment on modern life -- as when Boothe scowls about the adulation lavished on a charioteer: "It's shameful how the city fawns over athletes."

Inescapably, this is a violent film. It's about violent times and violent people. In one shocking scene, prisoners of war are executed by having their throats slit as they stand in line. Spared, happily enough, is Simmone Jade Mackinnon as a busty red-haired battle babe; Mackinnon deserves more screen time and gets it by returning as another woman of similar appearance in Part 2. She marries Attila and they settle down -- along with Attila's 23 other wives -- to raise a bundle of Huns. But peace does not last long.

The plot and plotting become confusing sometimes, especially when the Goths and the Visigoths get in on the act. For the most part, "Attila" is gripping and spectacular. Once you start watching, it's doubtful you'll feel the urge to utter that immortal American mantra, "See what else is on, Hun."

Indeed, some female viewers may find the hero attractive enough to merit a serenade: "I'm in love with you, Hunny; say you love me too, Hunny."

There. That's the last of them. Promise.

Copyright 2001 The Washington Post