Sunday, October 5, 2008


Thirteen turns out to be a lucky number for Antonio Banderas in "Die Hard" helmer John McTiernan's adventure epic "The Thirteenth Warrior," Banderas' first movie since "The Mask of Zorro." This spectacular sword & sorcery saga about an ostracized Arab poet (Antonio Banderas), a dirty dozen of rugged Viking warriors, and a mysterious tribe of cannibalistic pagans clad in bear skins who devastate a helpless Scandinavian village resembles "The Magnificent Seven"—plus six—crossed with "Conan the Barbarian." Derived from producer Michael Crichton's grisly novel "Eaters of the Dead," "The Thirteen Warrior" emerges as a larger-than-life epic that should enthrall guys.

When he wrote "Eaters of the Dead" in 1976, bestselling "Jurassic Park" novelist Michael Crichton obviously had "Beowulf" on his brain. "The Thirteenth Warrior" (*** out of ****) deconstructs the legend that most college freshmen have to suffer through in English Literature. If you recall, Beowulf was a famous Scandinavian warrior who responded to King Hrothgar's summons to slay the flesh-munching monster Grendel. After dispatching the vicious brute, Beowulf invaded Grendel's cave and butchered his beastly mom. In Crichton's spin on this saga, a savage horde of headhunters, who masquerade as demonic beasts and attack without mercy under the cover of darkness, have replaced Grendel. Like his literary counterpart, Buliwyf (Vladimir Kulich of "Red Scorpion 2") wins his reputation by spearheading a search and destroy mission behind enemy lines to axe the female chieftain.

"The Thirteenth Warrior" takes place in the 10th century. As Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan, Banderas portrays a well-bred Persian noble exiled from the medieval court at Baghdad for sexual indiscretions with the Caliph's wife. Ibn wanders the earth now as an emissary with his faithful manservant Melchisidek (Omar Sharif of "The Burglars"), who acts as his translator. At a river crossing in Russia, they meet a rough-riding band of Viking marauders. Commemorating the death of their former leader, these stout-hearted Norsemen celebrate the promotion of Buliwyf as their leader.

A weary messenger from King Hrothgar (Sven Wollter) stumbles into their camp with news about 'a terror that must not be named' that has besieged his kingdom. Buliwyf consults a soothsayer. Although he has assembled twelve of his best fighters, the old crone warns him that the thirteenth warrior must be 'one who is not from the North.' Before Melchisidek can translate the oracle's words, Ibn realizes that he has been conscripted. At first, the Vikings scorn Ibn, so some of the suspense is lost, while Banderas' narration covers those points not immediately obvious to audiences.

The William Wisher & Warren Lewis screenplay keeps us in the dark about the cannibals. Indeed, in their refusal to unmask the villains, they cheat us out of the satisfaction of knowing exactly who these predators are. Instead, the filmmakers confer more artistic ambiguity on this medieval swashbuckler than it needs to measure up to its formulaic promise. Evil—in a sense—looms as something greater than any man-made incarnation.

"The Thirteen Warrior" is a visual feast. "Die Hard: With a Vengeance" lenser Peter Menzies shoots these brigands through gauzy filters so they look like titans. Horror movies usually delay unveiling the monsters in much the same way that McTiernan waits until the final quarter hour to expose the cannibals. The sequence where Buliwyf, Ibn and the Norsemen infiltrate the enemy lair and storm through a maze of caves to kill the female chieftain is in the same league with "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom." The free-for-all excitement that Menzies' fast-moving cameras impart enhances the atmosphere and suspense.

Director John McTiernan helms this movie with a heavy hand. Alternating stunning battlefield footage with straightforward expository scenes about the characters and their enemy, he sacrifices anything approaching romance. Doom hangs palpably over "The Thirteenth Warrior," so moments of frivolity are ephemeral. Clearly outnumbered by hundreds of cannibals, the Vikings and Ibn feel as if they are living on borrowed time. Indeed, with broadswords shrieking through the air and decapitated heads flying off amid spurts of blood, McTiernan stages the combat without the same gladiatorial verse that Mel Gibson brought to "Braveheart." Aside from Banderas, the cast consists of little-known and unknown thespians whose characters are also eminently expendable. The Scandinavian cast rises to the occasion as the battle-hardened, suicidal Vikings. Second-billed actress Diane Venora as Queen Weilew utters a couple of lines. Venora's role appears to have been pruned along with the court intrigue, which is only hinted at in a scene where a Viking challenges one of Hrothgar's champions.

Sometimes, "The Thirteenth Warrior" seems almost too glum for its own good. While McTiernan and his scenarists exploit the cultural differences between Ibn and the Vikings for the bulk of the humor, this blood-drenched saga focuses more often on high-octane action than subtle nuances. The Viking hygiene scene is hilarious, but the humor is far too intermittent. The breathtaking scenery and the impressive battle scenes overshadow the clich├ęs. Your breath will catch in your throat when our heroes confront the cannibals on a rain swept battlefield for the final engagement. Veteran film composer Jerry Goldsmith of "Breakheart Pass" pumps up the action with another of his booming Wagnerian orchestral scores.

If those hordes of dubbed spear & sandal epics that the Italians produced in the early 1960s appealed to you, "The Thirteenth Warrior" qualifies as your kind of movie!

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