On an Adventure With Sam Neill

Revisiting the ripping yarn with the "Jurassic Park" star

Sam Neill and Lena Headey in The Adventurer: The Curse of the Midas Box
Sam Neill and Lena Headey in The Adventurer: The Curse of the Midas Box

From fleeing dinosaurs in Jurassic Park to Oscar-lauded films like The Piano and historical dramas like The Tudors, Sam Neill has treated his acting life like a grand escapade. "I'm very serious about my work, but I'm not at all serious about my career," he said. "I don't see the point. It's just one too many thing to worry about."

His latest film, The Adventurer: The Curse of the Midas Box is on VOD now and has a limited theatrical run starting today. Adapted from Mariah Mundi: The Midas Box (the first in a fantastical trilogy by British author G.P. Taylor), it’s set in the fog-covered streets and coasts of Edwardian Britain. With traces of Sherlock Holmes, SyFy's Warehouse 13 and the National Treasure romps, Neill describes it as a return of the literary tradition of "the ripping yarn."

Populated by granite-fisted heroes, intelligent young gentleman, and caddish bounders and popularized by The Jungle Book author Rudyard Kipling, later revived by Fu Manchu creator Sax Rohmer (and spoofed by Monty Python alums Michael Palin and Terry Jones in the 1970s TV show of the same name), ripping yarns were British boy's own adventures of the turn of the century – "Just pre-the First World War,” said Neill, "when the world lost its innocence."

They were the last gasp of empire and the first blast of modernity, as a shrinking world was clad in railroad smoke and the first sputtering turns of the aeroplane’s propeller. Neill said, "I grew up with Ryder Haggard and Biggles, and this film has that flavor about it, combined with a more contemporary Steampunk aesthetic."

Neill plays Otto Luger, an impeccably dressed and merciless villain in the Moriarty mold, seeking the lost treasure of King Midas. In his path are the Mundi family, most especially resourceful oldest son Mariah (Aneurin Barnard, who Neill called "a very talented young actor and ridiculously handsome") and his erratic but ingenious ally, Captain Will Charity (Michael Sheen of Frost/Nixon, the Twilight franchise, The Damned United, and Masters of Sex). Neill said, "He's a wonderful chameleon of an actor, and I'd never seen him to do something like this before."

There's a little bit of the film's sense of globe-trotting wonder in the 66-year-old Neill's own life. The Irish-born New Zealander still bounces between the UK, Hollywood, and Australia, with recent critically acclaimed performances in The Hunter, neo-vampire thriller Daybreakers, and kid-friendly fantasy Under the Mountain. He's also had major recurrent parts in TV series, including NBC's Alcatraz, cop drama Harry for New Zealand's TV3, and a bravura performance as Cardinal Wolsey in The Tudors. Last year he shot Peaky Blinders, a six-part series for the BBC, and he'll be returning to the UK soon to shoot season two. This week, he's in Australia, shooting psychological thriller Backtrack with Adrien Brody. "I don't do films with a mind to my career. I just do things that I fancy," he said. "A script lands on your desk, you're free, it looks like a lot of fun, and you put your hand up. Why they pick on oneself, I don't know. That's the mystery."

The Adventurer is a return to the kind of period heroics that Neill depicted in his breakthrough performance in Reilly, Ace of Spies. Along with 1981's Omen III: The Final Conflict, the 1983 British television series established Neill's reputation as a character actor, portraying British spy Sidney Reilly (one of the real-life inspirations for James Bond. Neill said, "While he was most certainly had heroic elements, there were dark sides to Riley's character. That sort of complexity, where it's pretty hard to tell if he's a good guy or a bad guy, I found very appealing when I played him."

There's no such ambiguity with Luger, who is a good, old-fashioned, child-stealing, world-conquering villain. Not just a bad guy. A villain. "There's some metaphorical mustache-twirling," said Neill. "The thing about ripping yarns is that they have full-blown heroes, like Michael Sheen's character, and full-blown villains like mine. They're writ large."

The Adventurer: Curse of the Midas Box is on VOD and limited theatrical release this week.

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