Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Lucky 13: "The 13th Warrior" (1999)

Loosely based on Michael Crichton's novel "Eaters of the Dead," this is a triumph in the pre-gun action film genre.

Antonio Banderas plays an Arab who joins up with twelve Viking warriors recruited to fight what seems to be a band of cannibalistic monsters who are wiping out whole villages in the Norse land. Along the way, Banderas learns their language and begins to help the warriors, who doubt his fighting abilities because of his small horse and smaller sword. After repelling an attack, the warriors decide to track the cannibals back to their cave, where they kill a priestess. After making it back to their adopted village, they wait for the climactic, gory, and vengeful battle.

I think I liked this movie so much because it jumped feet first into the mayhem, and yet kept the picture centered around Banderas and the warriors. "Jurassic Park III" jumped into the mayhem, but then started killing characters off so fast, you did not care. Here, Banderas provides a solid anchor to the film, and his compatriots are very likeable.

Another plus: no forced romance. Banderas has a purely physical fling, but we do not have a Viking fall in love with a cannibal (ouch!) or Banderas discovering his paramour in his saddlebag at the battle so she can prove even women can fight people eaters. The story is very straightforward, think of it as a remake of "The Magnificent Seven" crossed with "Quest for Fire." Another plus is the fact that the Vikings do not suddenly invent the world's first grenade or a machine gun that shoots horse dung. They have swords and arrows. They fight with swords and arrows.

The location filming in British Columbia is breathtaking. The movie is very cloudy, dark, and grim, and this works. Jerry Goldsmith's score enhanced the creepiness of every scene, and McTiernan proves he can direct some excellent action films that have more behind them than just explosions (like the first "Die Hard", although avoid "Nomads").

I think the studio marketing department screwed up this film. I expected a weak comedy about peace lover Banderas trying not to fight in a war. The ad campaign never mentioned who the enemy was, or even what time period this took place in.

I think action and Crichton fans will be impressed with "The 13th Warrior." I know I was. (* * * * *) out of five stars.