The 13th Warrior

(USA 1999)
R for strong language and some strong sexuality

Antonio Banderas, Omar Sharif, Diane Venora

Director: John McTiernan

Writing credits: William Wisher, Warren Lewis and Michael Crichton

Touchstone Pictures * 102 minutes


It's clear from the beginning. From the opening moments of THE 13TH WARRIOR, when Spanish-born heartthrob Antonio Banderas (wearing more eyeliner and mascara than Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra) begins, in voice-over, to tell his preposterous history as Arabia's Muslim ambassador (!) to the Norse tribes of the Middle Ages, you know you're in for a campy, over-the-top experience. It's about as serious as a romance novel, and the cheese flows fast and furious from the screen. The only thing missing, you might say to yourself, is Fabio as the Norse god Odin and maybe a cameo by Robert Goulet.

But wait -- even more silly surprises wait in store for you in THE 13TH WARRIOR, John McTiernan's unbelievably awful take on the Michael Crichton novel Eaters of the Dead. Watch with pride (or irritation) as Banderas teaches the Norse leader to write in Arabic. Quake with fear (or boredom) at first sight of the Villians of our Braveheart-flavored tale, the actual Eaters Of The, Well, You Know. (The EOTD look astonishingly like a racist cross between Native American and African tribal stereotypes, down to their bearskin headresses and their Darth Maul-inspired face paintings. With Arabs, Anglo Saxons, Africans and Indians running around amidst the clearly noticeable tropical fauna, the film's not even sure what continent it's pretending to be set on.) Try not to tap your foot impatiently as you wait around for the fight scenes that you know are coming (which, thankfully enough, provide enough blood, gore and violence to distract you from lines like "Time to fight, Little Brother!" and "You're a warrior now, Arab!")

The script is abominable; romantic female characters are introduced in what are clearly studio-driven afterthoughts, while continuity problems crop up in almost every scene. (Now they have the torches! Now they don't! Now they do!) McTiernan, who is coming off one of his smartest films in years (The Thomas Crown Affair) makes a royal mess of THE 13TH WARRIOR, with predictable and uninspired choices in almost every production element. McTiernan has said publicly that he is unhappy with the film's final cut (a re-editing made by the studio after McTiernan's version was deemed unfriendly.) It's easy to understand why this film, finished before Crown, has been delayed and bounced around the release schedule for so long (only to be finally dumped unceremoniously at the end of the summer season). The only confusion for me is the participation of Banderas, who takes on a jaw-droppingly shallow role that seems more suited to Jean Claude Van Damme or Caspar Van Dien. (Yes, I know they're not Arabic, but once you hear Banderas' thick-as-salsa Spanish accent, you know he's not from around these parts, either.)

Try as it may to have some import, the film just isn't substantively solid. THE 13TH WARRIOR aspires to be a cross-between Branagh's Henry V, a terrific battlefield epic, and the mediocre Braveheart. It ends up having less dramatic bite or flair than the so-bad-it's-good Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves. Let this be a lesson to all young filmmakers out there. THE 13TH WARRIOR is a perfect example of how even a Crichton screenplay can have everything go amazingly, incredibly, infuriatingly wrong.

Imagine a movie based on a widely-successful novel from one of the most influential mass-market authors of the past few decades, directed by a man known for his great-looking, if not slightly-hollow action films (Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October, to name a few). Now pour about 100 million dollars onto this project, and dump one of the most handsome men in Hollywood into the center of it. And plan it to be released in one of the most competitive summers to date. Recipe for success, right? Can't miss, right?

"Bzzzzzzzz." Wrong! Thanks for playing! Or perhaps that "bzzzzzzz" should be a "zzzzzzzzz." The only thing that saves THE 13th WARRIOR from utter failure is its unintentional humor. This would-be action/drama/hey-do-we-have-any-of-that-make-up-left-from-Braveheart film flops miserably, but at least inadvertently entertains with its gaffes and blunders.

I was actually hooked for the first few moments, and led to believe that the next ninety minutes or so might have been enjoyable. Banderas, playing an Arab ambassador to the Vikings (DON'T ASK!), is trying to learn the language of his new comrades before they go to do battle with the bearskin-rug-clad Meanies From the Mountains. The moments where a translator is speaking to him, and we often take the visual perspective of Ahmed (Banderas) as he tries to understand what is being said, until the moment where it finally clicks for him, is actually very well crafted.

That's it. Don't expect anything more. All that follows are trite lines of text, ridiculously low-budget (looking anyway - looks like the producers got robbed by their visual effects team) gore, Viking settings that continually change from fog-machine-laden Star Trek-set rejects to lush tropical resort grounds, and Banderas trying to act his way through about two inches of PermaBrand mascara (or was it simply a black magic marker?) under his eyes.

Please. Someone slap Michael Crichton, John McTiernan, Antonio Banderas, and all those goofy Vikings on the hands. With a large blunt instrument. Over and over again. Please.

- Gabriel Shanks


(This review originally appeared at Movie Bodega in 1999)






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