Chris Walsh (chris_walsh) wrote,
Chris Walsh
chris_walsh

FLASHBACKS: Review of The Thirteenth Warrior, 9/7/1999

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!
Tags: film reviews, flashbacks
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