“The Adventurer: The Curse of the Midas Box” is a well-intentioned but unsuccessful entry in the fantasy action adventure genre. It has all the right ingredients – a period setting, an elaborate mystery, a hero getting into scrapes, a dastardly villain in pursuit, ancient artifacts, hidden passageways, secret doorways opened with a fragmented key, booby trapped chambers, supernatural overtones – but no one knew how to stir them together. The story feels rushed. The characters come off as underdeveloped. The tone is inconsistent. Having not read its source, G.P. Taylor’s novel “Mariah Mundi: The Midas Box,” I can’t say how faithful the film is, nor can I begin to speculate on how fans of the novel will respond to it. All I can say is, as a film in and of itself, it lacks that extra special something.
Taking place in 1885, the plot involves an English teen named Mariah (Aneurin Barnard), who goes on a quest to save his kidnapped family while simultaneously working to solve the mystery behind the kidnappings, which is somehow connected to an ancient artifact of supposedly incredible power. Up until the story begins, he had no idea that his parents (Ioan Gruffudd and Keeley Hawes), Oxford professors and museum curators, are also agents for a secretive government organization dedicated to preventing shady factions from stealing rare and powerful antiquities. His kid brother, the scampish Felix (Xavier Atkins), was equally as unaware. The man behind all three of their disappearances is the odious Otto Luger (Sam Neill), who’s looking to claim the Midas Box, an artifact fabled to turn whatever is put inside it into gold. Then again, its powers could be even greater than that.
Helping Mariah along is one of his father’s co-agents, Will Charity (Michael Sheen), who’s unafraid of a fight, just a touch droll, and curiously indestructible. Although it’s obvious that he has his eye on Mariah and therefore never pops up at random, it’s left somewhat obscure how he’s able to run into Mariah at exactly the right moment. Regardless, he sends Mariah off to an island colony in the middle Atlantic, where he will pose as a porter at a hotel and spa recently acquired by Luger. Upon his arrival, he will meet Luger’s accomplice, Monica (Lena Headey), who manages the hotel with an iron fist and dresses like a madame at a brothel, and Sacha (Mella Carron), one of the hotel’s browbeaten teenage maids. The latter will inevitably become Mariah’s sidekick and love interest as he inches ever closer to discovering the whereabouts of the Midas Box.
Part of the problem is that advancement of the plot takes precedence over character development, when they both should have been equally considered. Director Jonathan Newman wants us to see a sequence of events, but he doesn’t much want us to invest in the people making that sequence possible. Everyone in the story is so quickly introduced that we never have the chance to process their involvement in the mystery, which is itself revealed more through quiet and hastily run-through moments of exposition than through action. Having said that, there are a couple of decent action sequences – structured, I suspect, with some affection for the “Indiana Jones” saga, which also boasts period settings and ancient artifacts of incredible power. However, those films are in line with pulp magazines and Saturday matinee serials. Even with its fantastical elements, “The Adventurer” is darker and a bit more reserved about having fun.
Another problem is the way in which Barnard was directed. Only during the final act is he allowed to emote. Up until that point, he’s downright statuesque, most of the film spent with his face frozen into an expression of neutrality. Yes, it’s conceivable, if not altogether true, that his character had a formal, repressed Victorian upbringing. Nevertheless, we can’t much invest in him when he appears to have the same reaction to situations as diverse as escaping from a gang of thugs in a reformatory school to getting kissed to finding an important clue as the mystery unfolds. He plays the hero of the story, and yet he’s not allowed to have much personality. Everyone around him, on the other hand, is; Sheen, Neill, and Headey all give performances just heightened enough to make them magnetic but not so heightened that they overact. It’s a tricky balance.
And then there are the smaller aspects, like a subplot involving a Russian magician performing his death-defying escape illusions at Luger’s hotel. His true identity is supposed to come off as a surprise, but in fact, it’s perfectly obvious who he is from the moment he’s first seen. There’s also the fact that the story is occasionally a bit too heavy-handed in its approach. Consider the discovery of slave children chipping away at walls of rock in a mine shaft; if there’s one thing a story like this doesn’t call for, it’s depressing shots of dirt-caked, forlorn faces and small bodies getting whipped. The ending of “The Adventurer: The Curse of the Midas Box” makes it clear that it’s intended to be the first in a series of films, although I seriously have my doubts that any sequels will be produced. Nothing about it makes a strong enough case that the story should continue.