(John McTiernan, US, 1999)
A welcome rare entry into the annal of brutal fantasy films, The 13th Warrior fails to set the screen alight with either drama or excitement, but does provide a nice change from American films full of American accents. With Antonio Banderas in the lead and with an excellent supporting cast of largely European actors there are no 1990's LA accents to try and ignore. And that is a big bonus. You've got the be able to suspend belief to get the most out of a film like this and if characters speak with voices that sound like a million TV commercials it's hard to get into the fantasy.
The fantasy here (set in 922AD) begins with Arab courtier Banderas joining forces with twelve rough Vikings (thus becoming the titular warrior) in a journey to the North lands where stories of the man-eating, bear-like monsters, the Wendol are rife. His skepticism disappears when he is drawn into a seemingly suicidally one-sided battle against the mysterious cannibal tribe. Based upon Michael Crichton's book Eaters of the Dead, this a reworking of the classic Beowulf - simply with more 'monsters'. Otherwise all the key elements are there. I have to confess to being somewhat disappointed with The 13th Warrior. I don't think my expectations were set too high - I'd read next to nothing in advance and had seen only the 30-second TV trailer once or twice. And the only review I'd read wasn't very favourable but did describe the battle scenes as 'stunning'. But it never really gels. The fight scenes are as brutal and shocking at the 15 certificate permits, but they only fleetingly show signs of true inspiration. They look grubby enough and even Banderas bears facial scars after his first encounter with the cannibal tribe, the scenes in between being little more than a build-up to the violence, the battles themselves are disappointingly brief and predictable. The attempts at 'light relief' (aka humour) aren't as bad as I expected and the acting, Banderas aside, was broadly very good.
There are, however, some winning touches. I particularly liked the intro where the languages foreign to Banderas were all delivered without subtitles, relying instead upon a cameoing Omar Shariff to provide realtime translations. His voice becomes the narrator for the opening ten minutes. However, once Banderas joins the quest he quickly learns the language of the North Men and gradually, as we experience it from his perspective, as he begins to understand more and more of what is being said, they progressively use more English, eventually speaking it completely as he comprehends fully. (Director McTiernan used a similar approach for the Russian characters in The Hunt for Red October.) Touches like these show that some extra effort has gone into producing the finished article, but one cannot help wonder if the troubled production, which led to Crichton's uncredited reshoots, is at the root of the lack of direction, character building or plot. Then again perhaps they simply never bothered with those elements. If, like me, you've a soft spot for this sort of thing then I'd certainly say make the effort to see it. Not least because it is one of a rare breed, but also in an undemanding mode, it does deliver effectively on some levels if not all.
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