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Review: Battle-scarred '13th Warrior'

September 2, 1999
Web posted at: 4:56 p.m. EDT (2056 GMT)

By Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- It's been so long since I originally saw a trailer advertising John McTiernan's primitive warfare epic "The 13th Warrior," I'd forgotten all about it. Back then, the film was charmingly titled "Eaters of the Dead," which didn't exactly bode well for lucrative Burger King tie-in deals.

The new title may be a good idea, but it's nowhere near as illuminating as the original. This tale of 10th-century Nordic head severing (which stars Antonio Banderas, if you can believe it) does, indeed, contain a horde of people-eaters. And, as a special Animal Planet bonus, they like to ride horses while dressed in grizzly bear suits!

Theatrical preview for "The 13th Warrior"
Windows Media 28K 80K

It's an ominous sign when an expensive film lies on the shelf for a year after completion. This usually means something's gone terribly wrong during production, that the studio ended up with a different movie from the one they set out to make. Or else they ended up with exactly the movie they set out to make, and it stinks.

Either way, this name-changing and late-releasing stuff can be viewed as a big fat caution light. It doesn't always mean a film's a debacle, but there's usually something especially out-of-alignment with the finished product.

Chewing and eschewing

"The 13th Warrior," it turns out, is way beyond silly. Banderas eschews acting in favor of making intense faces, just like he always does, and you can hardly see what's going on in all the shadows and mist.

But it's not any crummier than many films that get released right on schedule every single year. That explains why it made a respectable $10 million on its first weekend of release. Luckily for the filmmakers, modern American filmgoers don't embarrass easily.

There have been reports that parts of "The 13th Warrior" were shot by its co-producer, the Hollywood-powerful Michael Crichton. Crichton wrote the book that the movie is based on (that's where the original title came from) and he stepped in behind the camera to do whatever it is he thought he could do when he got there.

It didn't help much. There's almost no movement to the story, the characters are interchangeable, and the gory battle scenes are as darkly confusing as the ones in John Boorman's much more imaginative "Excalibur" (1981).

This is the manliest of manly man movies, featuring so much hand-to-hand combat, hearty laughter and bearded alcohol guzzling you'd think it was a Miller Lite commercial aimed at Vikings. The picture feels like several other films without ever managing to feel much like itself.

It's like "Star Wars," but with horses instead of space ships. It's also like "The Road Warrior," but with horses instead of cars, and Banderas instead of Mel Gibson (a pretty poor exchange rate, by the way). Mostly, though, it's like an R-rated game of "Dungeons and Dragons" that takes place in a barrel full of mud and secretions.

Bonding and Banderas

The characters have a near-religious disregard for personal hygiene, with blood, snot, spit, vomit, urine and phlegm all making copious guest appearances. Apparently, no one could think of a way to force a Viking to discharge ear wax.

The period is evocatively re-created -- that is, when you can see it through the fog -- but everything else seems to be lifted from a 1940s studio picture. An old crone prophesies that 13 warriors must be sent to kill the cannibals, who are referred to with a simple, grim nod because they're so evil you're not supposed to speak their name.

Boy, that's evil.

Banderas' character is a displaced Arab poet named Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan. The old crone selects him to accompany the big, burly Vikings on their quest, even though he knows nothing about warfare, is so skinny he can barely lift a sword, and rides a small horse that all the other Vikings laugh at.

The Vikings leap into fits of group laughter over anything that moves, just like they did in the past when somebody like Victor Mature played an Arab. "Look -- Ahmed can't lift his sword!" AHAAA-HAAAA-HAAAA-HAAAA! "Look -- Ahmed fell in the mud!" AHAA-HAAAA-HAAAA-HAAAA! Never mind the impalings; it's a wonder they don't all die of broken blood vessels.


The rest is preoccupied with graphic ways to kill a man in a bear suit. More than a couple of heads get yanked off, with blood spewing like the fountain at Caesar's Palace. People have sharp sticks driven through their torsos. Throats are cut. Severed arms tumble off bloated corpses.

Akira Kurosawa's brilliant samurai movies -- especially 1957's "Throne of Blood" -- are a visual influence. But the script lacks the dignity that infuses Kurosawa's equally blood-thirsty characters.

McTiernan and Crichton should just forget about this one and move on to other things. It really is a bloody mess.

"The 13th Warrior" is like a documentary about the history of Nordic meat processing. There are tons of human butchering, and the blood runs thick and gooey. If you're crazy enough to bring a child to see this, I'll personally phone the authorities. Note, by the way, how the old crone places verbs anywhere she wants to in a sentence, just like Yoda. Whatever happened to noun-verb-direct object? Rated R. 114 minutes.

Official 'The 13th Warrior' site
Touchstone Pictures
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