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The Thirteenth Warrior is a very special failure.

The movie usually looks and sounds great…but there is almost no discernable point, or sense, to it. Frankly, it is mumbled, confusing and unrewarding. When the usually charismatic Antonio Banderas has almost nothing to do and in fact looks miserable, how is the audience supposed to feel?

What we’re supposed to feel is that we’re witnessing a tenth century war that inspires the Old English legend of the warrior Beowulf. Epics are made from the very same ingredients as this movie; those ingredients just have to be mixed properly. That is, the stories need to be told better than The Thirteenth Warrior does.

As we learn in the film’s rushed opening, an Arab intellectual played by Banderas has been told to leave Baghdad and contact tribes in Northern Europe — mainly so he can’t have an affair with some important guy’s lady.

So it’s off into the wilds of medieval Scandinavia — eventually (it takes a while to get there) — where Banderas joins a Viking tribe and helps it battle a mysterious tribe of cannibals. When victory is theirs, Banderas agrees to “draw the sounds” (as one Viking describes writing) that tell the tale of the king’s victory. Banderas heads for home. And that’s the story.

This movie could have been so muscular and rousing and good. I mean, the original title of the movie was Eaters of the Dead, for crying out loud; that’s a name with some cajones.

Warrior is a special failure because this is what the film had going for it: John McTiernan, a director whose work I’ve always liked, working from a Michael Crichton novel that was made into a script by T2’s William Wisher. Plus there’s the striking Diane Venora (Heat) as a Nordic queen, thundering and powerful music by Jerry Goldsmith (his best work this summer), and a leading man who’s approaching a one-name-is-all-you-need level of recognition; I say Antonio, and you know I’m not talking about Antonio Fargas, Huggy Bear from “Starsky & Hutch.”

These are all solid professionals working with solid material, and this is no hack job. But it’s lifeless and it makes the audience restless.

Too often, Banderas is reduced to just watching what happens in the tribe without acting on it. He’s playing an intellectual who’s only a man of action when necessary…but Banderas is an actor who needs to be in motion, and this movie gives him precious little chance to do that.

The movie shows the culture clash between the Arab and the Vikings — the men mock Banderas’ horse and his use of smaller weapons — and they get past that clash to reach an understanding of what makes their different cultures click. This film is too confused to do too much with this, except for a good scene of Banderas praying to Allah as he prepares for the final battle and his final scene with the king. (In my favorite line in the movie, the king says that the Northern peoples believe in many gods, not just Allah as Banderas does. “I will pray to all of them for you,” the king says. “I hope you will not mind.”

The Thirteenth Warrior is not a complete failure: watch a line of fire snake down a mountainside as the cannibal tribe heads into battle…

…or the rows and rows of tribesmen on horses thundering across hills toward our heroes…

…or how thoroughly the movie creates the feel of the tenth century (using almost entirely real locations—Baghdad as glimpsed in one computer-generated shot is rather fake in comparison)…

…or Anne Bancroft in an unbilled part as a wild-eyed soothsayer…

…or Banderas slowly coming to understand the warriors’ language (which is McTiernan referencing a scene in his own movie The Hunt for Red October)…

…and you’ve seen some of what is worthy in this film.

It’s very likely that Warrior, which finished shooting two years ago, suffered the death of a thousand cuts. Though the movie once was set for an early 1998 release — with a preview in theaters and a tie-in release of the novel that hit stores back then — someone slammed on the brakes. New scenes were added by Crichton (including, I’m sure, one that explains why Banderas is the “thirteenth warrior” of the title). There also was a lot changed in editing, which probably explains the film’s oddly brief prelude and its overall inability to maintain any pace.

Whatever was changed, the resulting movie seems hobbled. Something definitely is missing.

And there was not even any nudity. I demand nudity in my R-rated medieval adventure flicks!


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 25th, 2008 05:07 am (UTC)
Agreed on all counts, although I certainly enjoyed it more than Zemeckis's atrocity (Angelina Jolie looking as though she'd just been dipped in honey aside.)
May. 25th, 2008 02:23 pm (UTC)
See, I disagree on last year's Beowulf, about which I was mixed-to-positive in my feelings. Of course, I also was mixed-to-positive about The Postman, so take my opinions with a grain of salt...

(Angelina Jolie looking as though she'd just been dipped in honey aside)

Heh. I love that when Alicia saw Beowulf, she ranted about the film's not-quite nudity. "Grendel's mother is naked, but you don't see anything! Beowulf's naked, but you don't see anything!"
May. 25th, 2008 07:51 pm (UTC)
Heck, one of *my* favorite movies is the '76 King Kong, so I can hardly throw stones ;)
May. 25th, 2008 09:51 pm (UTC)
...A movie where you see a young nubile Jessica Lang's tits frontally... but, due to lighting and such, don't really see anything (at least it seemed frustratingly so to my 13-year-old-watching-VHS eyes. Maybe I'll have to rent the DVD to see if this has been remedied).
May. 25th, 2008 01:35 pm (UTC)
You know, I think I'm one of those odd people who enjoyed this movie. Not that I thought it was a great masterpiece of moviemaking, but for a popcorn, kill a quiet evening flick, it does the job.
May. 25th, 2008 02:27 pm (UTC)
It has its fans (I know Beowulf fan Caitlin R. Kiernan liked it), and I wish I had liked it more, honestly. I still found it to be a confused film. It's certainly not a creative abortion like Wild Wild West, and the filmmakers certainly tried to make it work; I made sure to convey that in my write-up.
May. 25th, 2008 02:33 pm (UTC)
...It's certainly not a creative abortion like Wild Wild West...

I totally agree with that!
May. 25th, 2008 09:56 pm (UTC)
I certainly found plenty to be entertained by in it, and it has moments that are primally epically rousing (Goldsmith and the cinematographers being largely to thank), yet even by being stirred by those best moments, I couldn't shake the itch that they just weren't supported by their context (I did like the climactic pre-battle prayer... it was a fun, stirring homage to the pre-battle prayer in Conan the Barbarian, which was itself an homage to the final battle in Seven Samurai). I didn't mind that Bandaras often isn't doing much, as part of the point is that the focal main character isn't the true protagonist.
May. 27th, 2008 07:12 pm (UTC)
Goldsmith was probably the best addition; he was the second composer after Graeme Revell, and Goldsmith often composed well for Michael Crichton projects (supposedly Crichton himself handled the reshoots).

*Conan/Seven Samurai reference*

I didn't catch that. It's been way too long since I've seen Conan, and I'm a bad geek who's yet to see Seven Samurai.
May. 27th, 2008 09:08 pm (UTC)
I've often remarked that this movie is almost really good. There are many good things about it, they just don't gel in the way that a great movie needs to gel.

A shame, really. I generally have a "take him or leave him" attitude toward Antonio Banderas, and I think that had this movie been assembled a bit better it would've done him a world of good.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )