The new sword slinging adventure "The 13th Warrior" is easily the most unjustifiably critically slammed movie of the year. A rousing, heroic, absorbing-- and bloody-- tale, it may lack the depth of "Braveheart," but it certainly rises far above the usual "Conan" type sword and sorcery epic.
In fact, it might be called a sword and anti-sorcery epic. The movie is based on Michael Crichton's novel, "Eaters of the Dead," which proposed a more earth-bound version of the legend of Beowulf, the Scandinavian warrior who saved King Hrothgar's kingdom from the man eating beast, the Grendel.
In Crichton's version, the Grendel are an evil, cannibalistic tribe that takes advantage of myths and superstitions to strike terror in the hearts of the common people. Buliwyf leads a small band of warriors, "Seven Samurai"-style, to rescue Hrothgar's village. His valiant band includes, at the insistence of their soothsayer, a 13th member who is not a Norseman; so they draft Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan (Antonio Banderas) an Arab ambassador on his way to their country.
Plot wise, that's about it. The warriors engage the evil Grendel in a series of battles, as Ahmed, the refined outsider, gains their confidence and his manhood in the process.
And perhaps that's the key to the animosity of the "sensitive" 90s critics who have slammed this movie. It's a VERY masculine film. "The 13th Warrior" flinches from neither the horrors, nor the exhilaration, of battle. There are no anachronistic 20th century liberal characters complaining "Can't we just get along?"
Bravery, courage, devotion to duty and self sacrifice, humor in the face of death, kindness toward the week, jah. Negotiating and trying to find some kind of common ground or multi- cultural moral equivalence with marauding demonic cannibals, nay.
Admittedly, Crichton merely grafted the characters from "Beowulf" into the plot of the "Seven Samurai," (and there is no doubt this movie does not approach either source as great art) but stealing from Akira Kurosawa's great epic movie is a time-honored practice. It has been done countless times, from "The Magnificent Seven" to "A Bug's Life."
The acting is quite good, with Banderas showing once again the charm and athletic ability he brought to "The Mask of Zorro," and two unknowns, Vladimir Kulich as Buliwyf, and Dennis Storhoi as his right hand man and Ahmed's friend, Herger, making solid, charismatic, debuts.
John McTiernan ("Die Hard" 1 and 3, "Hunt for Red October" and more recently, "The Thomas Crown Affair") stages several awe inspiring battles, the best is an attack by torch carrying cavalry in the misty night; but all the brutal combat is of a cinematic quality that ranks with "Braveheart" and "Excalibur." McTiernan assembles some magnificent sets, and the tone of the times feels just right.
Reports of squabbles between Crichton and McTiernan over the final cut of the $100 million movie may have led to some of the bad advance notice for "The 13th Warrior." The political and romantic subplots getting short shrift may have been the result of that off screen battle.
Fathers who are looking for a good macho time at the movies with their sons who are old enough for a (much) bloodier, Viking version of an old-fashioned cavalry vs. Indians last stand movie, should just rent "Emma" for the girls, and go.