The Thirteenth Warrior
Rating -

Action/Thriller (US); 1999; Rated R; 116 Minutes

Antonio Banderas: Ibn Fadlan
Diane Venora: Queen Weilew
Omar Sharif: Melchisidek
Vladimir Kulich: Buliwif
Maria Bonnevie: Olga
Mischa Hausserman: Rethel

Produced by Michael Crichton, Ned Dowd, Ethan Dubrow, John McTiernan, Andrew G. Vajna; Directed by John McTiernan; Screenwritten by William Wisher Jr.; based on "Eaters Of The Dead" by Michael Crichton

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Written by DAVID KEYES

For one moment, let's just say you are Antonio Banderas' biggest fan. You've seen all of his movies, read all of his magazine articles, memorized every line of dialogue he's recited, and even cried for him when he was denied an Oscar nomination for "Evita." Without doubt, you love the guy. And why shouldn't you?--this is someone who, behind all those mystifying good looks, can act his way out of a quicksand pit. With that in mind, ask yourself this question: are you the proper candidate to see his latest picture, "The 13th Warrior?" I sincerely hope not.

He may be the leading character, but he certainly isn't the main focus. The movie is not even a definite Banderas vehicle--in fact, any attention the film gets is owed to the fact that it is, after all, the long-anticipated adaptation of "Eaters Of The Dead," by Michael Crichton. For the near-two years it has been in production, the movie has been through a ring of chaos, launching with a stupendous budget that easily zoomed past the 100 million mark, and followed by rejection from test audiences, who were reportedly underwhelmed by the first shoot. But director John McTiernan and writer William Wisher Jr. were apparently determined to get it right--their incessantly ambitious egos felt that a product could be salvaged from all the senselessness. They went back to the drawing board, reshooting certain scenes, revising parts of the script, and so on. There were even reports of Crichton himself offering his help with some of the reshoots.

But maybe their decision to modify the picture should have been reconsidered on the basis of two facts. For one, cinema has already proven that alterations done to an original concept frequently interfere with the filmmaker's original vision. Secondly, one should choose to modify their products at their own discretion--not at the proposal of test audiences. What is a filmmaker, I ask, if he cannot trust his own judgment?

"The 13th Warrior" opens in the midst of a ferocious storm, in which the camera closes in on a ship tossing through the waves, and eventually settles on Ibn Fadlan (Banderas), who from that moment begins telling us his story. Banished from his homeland after the pursuit of a married woman, he is 'appointed' ambassador, and sent to the north, where he comes across a group of perverted, rude, nasty ignoramuses who are about ready to embark on an expedition to the north--one that involves hunting down a bear-like species who murder fellow Norsemen, rip their heads off, eat the bodies, and don't even bother to clean up after themselves.

The trek requires 13 sword-wielding henchmen, but only 12 can be from the north. Fadlan is selected the 13th soldier in their fated expedition, and soon finds himself amongst a slew of non-English-speaking Norsemen. But in one of the movie's few compelling scenes, the lone Arab observes each man carefully, picking up on the dialect just as it is spoken. Words are repeated over and over in his mind, as are the shots of men hurdling around the campfire, laughing, drinking, and telling stories. Soon those words are clear to him: on screen, in one quick moment, the dialogue is uttered in English. Why, you ask? Because Fadlan is beginning to comprehend their language, and we are being given the dialogue through his mind, therefore translated into our native language.

Alas, none of the dialogue is significant in the shallow story. That's because characters use parley as seldom as possible, so that important and needed explanations become sidetracked behind all sorts of complex battle sequences, which, I might add, are so confusing that when someone is slain, you aren't sure if it's the protagonist or the antagonist. There is a dialogue sequence, for instance, that begins with a promising idea: what if these "eaters" think they are bears (after all, they collect carcasses and wear the fur as headdresses, hiding their human form)? Is it possible that they hibernate in caves when they aren't out hunting down humans? Maybe. But instead of pursuing the perception, the screenplay puts it in the discard pile, instead concentrating on the countless sequences of brutal slaughter, in which the 'eaters' invade villages, and the warriors attempt to subvert their efforts. Even though these things do live in caves, no one brings up the bear subject again.

I wanted this movie to succeed, even though it was clear from the amount of time it spent on the cutting room floor that nothing could be salvaged. Do the revisions, however, make the product better than the first version? Maybe. Nonetheless they shouldn't have been done for two reasons, as I have already pointed out. My best advice is to pick up Crichton's novel and read it cover to cover. It is an outstanding piece of literature. Seeing "The 13th Warrior" is like wishing for light at the end of a long dark tunnel, when we both know nothing is really there.

1999, David Keyes, Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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