Knights of the Zodiac (2023) Review

Watching Knights of the Zodiac (or Saint Seiya: The Beginning in Japan) is equivalent to revisiting your worst nightmare that you secretly hope won’t happen again. But it did. The kind of nightmare where a studio chose to bastardise a beloved or popular manga and/or anime franchise for the so-called sake of tailoring the live-action version for international audiences. We used to see this in a certain cinematic abomination called Dragonball Evolution fourteen years ago, which was one of the worst manga-to-live-action adaptations ever made.

Now, you can add Knights of the Zodiac to the list. Despite Toei Animation serving as the co-production company, the same animation studio that gave us not only the original Saint Seiya anime series from 1986 to 1989 but also the likes of Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon and Slam Dunk, just to name a few, this live-action version is unfortunately dead on arrival. Which made me sad because this marks the first time we finally get to see a live-action Saint Seiya/Knights of the Zodiac movie.

If you are expecting this to be as faithful as the manga or anime series, you can just forget about it. Polish filmmaker Tomek Baginski, who cut his teeth directing a number of short films before finally making his feature-length directorial debut, basically takes the familiar IP and dumbs it down into a more condensed and streamlined version. You don’t necessarily need to be a fan to understand what’s going on because the story isn’t hard to follow.

Famke Janssen as Guraad in "Knights of the Zodiac" (2023)

Besides, Josh Campbell alongside Matt Stuecken and Kiel Murray’s screenplay is nothing more than a generic fantasy-action tale straight out of the assembly line, complete with the familiar protagonist being “the one” to save the day. That “one” in question is Seiya (Mackenyu — you might remember him playing the vengeful Enishi Yukishiro in Netflix’s Rurouni Kenshin: The Final two years ago).

We first met him as a streetfighter participating in an underground cage-fighting tournament. He works for Cassios (Nick Stahl) and that night after a fight goes wrong, a mysterious man named Alman Kiddo (Sean Bean) wants to help him. Seiya is sceptical at first but following an attempted sneak attack, who turns out to be the heavily-armoured foot soldiers working for Kiddo’s ex-wife, Guraad (Famke Janssen), he eventually agrees to leave with Kiddo.

From there, Seiya finds himself meeting Sienna (Madison Iseman), a reincarnation of Athena, the goddess of war. She has been laying low in a secluded mansion for the sake of her safety. Apparently, Seiya is destined to protect her but before he’s even qualified to do so, he must train under the supervision of the masked Marin the Eagle Knight (Caitlin Hutson) to become one of the knights of the zodiac as Pegasus Knight.

Knights of the Zodiac may run a standard 2-hour length but it sure feels longer than that. As an origin story, it’s all perfunctorily told as if the movie was written and directed by an AI. The pacing tends to slack every now and then, giving way to expository-heavy and stilted dialogues. The characters are just as forgettable and while I’m glad the movie didn’t whitewash Seiya, it’s too bad Mackenyu lacks a certain personality of a heroic character. He’s more of a pretty face with rigid-looking expressions.

A scene from "Knights of the Zodiac" (2023)

The supporting cast doesn’t help much either. Not even enlisting the familiar faces of Famke Janssen and Sean Bean, whose respective characters as Guraad and Alman Kiddo are severely underwritten. And I’m not sure whether is it me or Janssen spends most of the time looking constipated in the movie. Mark Dacascos joins the cast as Kiddo’s butler and assistant, Mylock but Baginski doesn’t really know what to do with him. Sure, he gets to showcase his martial arts skill but he’s pretty much underused for most parts of the movie.

While the story and characters falter, that leaves the action and visual effects. It’s nice to have Andy Cheng serves as the stunt coordinator and fight choreographer, who previously made quite an impression in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. The action sequences in Knights of the Zodiac have thankfully none of the shaky-cam nonsense and choppy editing. At least you can see what’s going on during the fight scenes but for all the elaborate choreography that Cheng tries to achieve here, they look… disappointingly ordinary. No wow factor or a sense of visceral thrills.

The CGI is adequate up to a certain extent but nothing spectacular and what could have been an epic effects-laden fight scene between Seiya and Diego Tinoco’s Nero the Phoenix Knight feels strangely anticlimactic. The costume design of the knights’ armoured suits (they are called Cloths in the anime series) are predominantly and not to mention, sadly muted in their colours. Yoshihiro Ike’s score is as bland as it gets and has none of the rousing music heard from the anime series.

Knights of the Zodiac concludes with an open ending, suggesting there will be more to come (you can leave your seat after the end credits start rolling since there is no mid- and/or post-credits stinger(s) whatsoever). But looking at the way this otherwise potential franchise starter turns out to be, I figure Knights of the Zodiac is better off going back to the drawing board for a complete reboot rather than a follow-up.