By Owen Gleiberman
Updated November 19, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

A couple of ornately armored soldiers get their heads lopped off in full blood-spurting glory, and there are several startling low-angle shots of Dustin Hoffman’s nostrils (he plays — no lie — the heroine’s conscience). That aside, there’s precious little in Luc Besson’s solemnly inflated, battle-weary historical epic The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc that inspires much surprise. It’s a cast-of-thousands movie in the doggiest, most literal-minded sense: With all of those extras lancing and thwacking away, the viewer strains to feel much of a connection to any of them.

As Joan, the indefatigable teenage saint who, in the early 1400s, leads the French army in a crusade against the invading English, Milla Jovovich isn’t terrible, exactly. Plucky and defiant, with a flop of sun-washed blond hair that still looks like next season’s fashion-runway revolt, she wields a broadsword with confidence, and she keeps her tulip-soft features proudly alert. Her warrior-jock Joan certainly holds the eye, but whenever Jovovich speaks, she sounds singsongy and flip—depressingly un-mythic. She has dynamism, of a sort, but no ferocity, no agony-and-ecstasy fire. ”I don’t think,” says Joan. ”I leave that to God.” Jovovich seems to have left her acting to God, too.

As a character, Joan of Arc has defeated many an actress, and that’s because she’s a nearly unfathomable contradiction of innocence and vengeance, masochism and valor, youth and timelessness. In The Messenger, we meet her as an ethereal 8-year-old (radiantly played by Jane Valentine), abused and abandoned, hallucinating her mission as a holy savior. By the time she grows up into a strapping pouty beauty, her presence has been all but swallowed by the battering tumult of medieval warfare. There’s a token of castle intrigue: John Malkovich, as the opportunistic French dauphin, who is waiting to be crowned, delights a bit too obviously in being John Malkovich, and Faye Dunaway, as his scheming mother-in-law, looks and acts like a scary wax-museum version of her former self.

Mostly, though, the film lays on the stolid combat: flaming arrows, men storming castles on rickety ladders, catapults shooting boulders. (There are only so many ways to photograph a catapult.) Besson has always been a bit of a hack, but he worked with zappier personality and flair in The Professional and The Fifth Element than he does in this pious, super-square action dud. By the time Hoffman shows up, sounding like he was beamed in from a much later century, we realize that Joan has no one left to talk to but her inner self, and that it would be hard to imagine a martyrdom more weightless than Milla Jovovich going to the stake for faith.

The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc

  • Movie
  • R
  • 141 minutes
  • Luc Besson