Blu-ray Review: “Knights of the Zodiac”

Live-action adaptations of animated films and series have succeeded in Japan, but few have overcome the transition to Hollywood. For every Alita Battle Angel there is Ghost in the Shell, Dragon Ball Evolution, and Death Note. The cultural barrier aside, there has never been the right balance between ambition and execution. Sony’s Knights of the Zodiac is a valiant attempt to bring the Saint Seiya animation to life with a modest budget and recognizable actors just below the A-list. The result is a visually impressive movie with some franchise potential that ends up being squandered by a bland screenplay that barely scratches the surface of the vast mythology from the long-running Saint Seiya manga and animation series.

While the original manga consisted of 28 volumes published over four years, the Saint Seiya animated franchise is comprised of 315 episodes across seven series along with six feature films released from 1986 through 2022. Knights of the Zodiac is the first live-action take on the series in any language which means this film is highly anticipated internationally. Filmed entirely in English with an international cast from across the globe, Knights of the Zodiac streamlines the vast storylines from the animated and manga into an origin story that attempts to simplify the concept into a digestible scale. In Knights of the Zodiac, Seiya is played by Mackenyu (the son of the legendary Sonny Chiba). Seiya makes ends meet as a low level fighter for Cassios (Nick Stahl) when he is pulled away by Alman Kiddo (Sean Bean), a scientist who explains about the impending reincarnation of the goddess Athena. Currently dormant in the body of Sienna (Madison Iseman), Athena must be protected by powerful knights and Kiddo belieces Seiya is the Pegasus Knight. Kiddo needs Seiya to protect Sienna from the evil Guraad (Famke Janssen) who wants her dead. Reluctantly, Seiya agrees and begins to unlock his gifts and abilities.

Within minutes, Knights of the Zodiac defines its tone with tedious dialogue that does not match the abilities or presence of the actors delivering it. In their first sequence together, Nich Stahl and Mackenyu give steely-eyed stares at each other and engage in a solid fight sequence choreographed by Andy Cheng. Cheng gives the numerous fight scenes a balance of ethereal power reminiscent of wuxia movies along with the expected tracers, shadows, and glowing energy from animated fare. The combination makes for action that varies from living cartoon to cartoonish and silly. When Knights of the Zodiac is heavy in martial arts and battles, it looks great. When it slows down to a crawl with exposition-heavy moments, the film drags and cannot overcome the weakness of the dialogue. With references to Greek dieties and the film’s silly name for powers (“Cosmos”), Knights of the Zodiac cannot quite reach the suspension of disbelief we offer Marvel and DC adaptations.

Of the cast, everyone is bought into the silliness of the material, but some carry it better than others. Mackenyu makes for a decent leading man, but his line delivery is often wooden and dull. Similarly, Madison Iseman makes for a more energetic performance as Sienna/Athena, but she is mired in scenes of her sitting around convulsing or wearing one of multiple over-the-top wigs. Nick Stahl does his best as a secondary villain with wasted screen time while Diego Tinoco is meant to be the primary antagonist but his delivery is often laughable. Of the veteran performers, Sean Bean has the least to do and is included more for exposition than anything. Mark Dacascos is underused as well but his placement hints at more should sequels get made. Caitlin Hutson delivers a solid, masked performance as Marin the Eagle Knight. Famke Janssen (whom I personally have a slight crush on) is the best aspect of this adaptation as Guraad, the villain and one of the sole characters of the cast to get a complete arc through the movie.

Director Tomek Baginski, whose credits are primarily on animated shorts and video game intros, does his best with what he is given, but much of this film looks like a cutscene from any number of Playstation video games. The green screen is obvious through the entire final act which is supposed to be the set-piece this movie is built around. While the training scenes and dream sequences benefit from the special effect work, the finale is mired in so many computer generated effects that it undermines the action itself. The cinematography by Tomasz Naumiuk replicates the slow motion and sharp angles of anime films but falls prey to overuse as the film plods through its two hour run time. Even the music by Yoshihiro Ike, which at times is quite stirring, feels out of place and drowns out some dialogue and ruins the rhythym. There is so much set up in this film that is designed to support further sequels that they didn’t manage to give this movie a heart of its own.

Knights of the Zodiac ultimately does not leverage the vast potential of the Saint Seiya source material despite a willing cast and a serviceable budget. While the actions sequences are well choreographed and special effects start out strong, the movie fails to capture enough energy or charisma from the main characters. When your villain has more presence than your hero, your story is in trouble. Had this movie invested in being an animated epic come to life, like the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer, it may have worked. Otherwise, it should have gone as gritty as Robert Rodriguez did with Alita Battle Angel. As it stands, Knights of the Zodiac looks and feels like a compromise designed to kickstart a franchise that seems unlikely to happen.

Finally let’s discuss the video performance, which is very good. Blu Ray picture is bright and sharp. There are plenty of visual effects to show off the strength of Blu Ray. Sound is amazing as the disc encompasses at Dolby 5.1 mix with plenty of LFE (subwoofer) activity. I’d be interested in checking out a 4K copy (not really sure if it really exists). In short, Knights of the Zodiac will give your system a great workout. 

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