The Phantom Tollbooth

Thirteenth Warrior
Directed by John McTiernan
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Dennis Storhoi, Vladimir Kulich, and Omar Sharif
Length: 114 minutes

There are good reasons why some action movies open in May and June and, like a physics equation, there are equal and opposite reasons why other action movies open in August. Like much of Hollywood logic, the motivations revolve around ticket sales. If studio execs think a movie will be a hit and inspire repeat business, they open it at the beginning of the summer; so that it can sell tickets all season long. But if the big shots think they have a dog on their hands, they open it at the end of summer, where the competition is weaker and it doesn't matter as much if the flick flops.

The first twenty minutes of The Thirteenth Warrior (based on Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead) are a painful reminder of why this movie was released on the last weekend of August. It starts with the ominous sound of wind, making it the 85th movie of the summer to begin this way. At least in a movie like The Haunting, the wind creaking through the house was somewhat related to the plot. In The Thirteenth Warrior it's just for effect. Also just for effect: a blaring soundtrack and an insane fortune teller spouting off crap like "Find the root, Strike the will." Or was it "Strike the root, Find the will"? Not that it matters. The most empty effect, though, is Omar Sharif. I know why the producers wanted him (prestige and name recognition), but I can't for the life of me figure out what he got out of the deal. Doesn't he have enough money to ignore parts
like this?

Speaking of empty, there's our star, Antonio Banderas. He plays Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan, an Arab poet and diplomat who's sent to the frigid north country. As Ahmed complains early in the movie, "I'm an ambassador, dammit. I'm supposed to talk to people." On the way, he meets up with a band of Norsemen who are celebrating the death of their leader in a hut that vaguely resembles an old Times Square strip club. They spend their days drinking each other's spit and laughing for no apparent reason. But soon they will have a mission: to save their country from "the thing which cannot be named." Do I need to tell you that Ahmed gets drafted for the cause?

The Thirteenth Warrior actually throws some surprises at the audience, not so much in terms of plot but in the way it subverts traditional genre expectations. For example, I kept waiting for Antonio Banderas to cut loose and show these vulgar Vikings how to really fight. Never happens. Instead, his character always defers to the stronger and more experienced warriors. I realize Ahmed is a poet, but this is a sword-and-armor action pic and Banderas is our star. In fact, there is a satisfyingly small amount of hero worship in this film. Ahmed is more cultured, but the movie doesn't make those skills particularly useful. His romantic subplot, telegraphed early in the film, is thankfully glossed over quickly. And even when Ahmed rushes out of the village, when no one else will, to save a Norse child (in a scene that reminded this reviewer of Lawrence of Arabia), the result is strangely subdued.

If there's no central hero, then it's up to the ensemble to carry the day; and The Thirteenth Warrior's secondary cast isn't too bad. Dennis Storhoi, a veteran Norwegian actor, makes his American film debut with verve as Herger the Joyous. He navigates the transition from skeptical Norseman to Ahmed's best friend with ease. And Vladimir Kulich, who has the ignoble resume of Crash and Firestorm (with Howie Long!), takes a step forward with his imposing physique and stoic outlook in the character of Buliwyf, the leader of the group.

The cinematography by Peter Menzies, Jr. (General's Daughter, Die Hard with a Vengeance) has its moments, especially in his use of  the British Columbian scenery. He also employs the arty convention of sticking people's faces on the very edge of the widescreen frame. Of course, there's nothing else in the frame to detract from the imminent pan-and-scan video release.

None of this, though, can overcome the fact that The Thirteenth Warrior just isn't very good. Director John McTiernan's (Die Hard, Hunt for Red October) battles are stirring (and gross, ripped heads and all), but I didn't particularly care about the outcome. Antonio Banderas doesn't bring any emotion to his character, and none of the minor characters are important enough to provoke any passion. So the audience is left watching a succession of dark and murky fight scenes without a rooting interest. Unless you just can't get enough of swords and armor, The Thirteenth Warrior is an unlucky choice.

J. Robert Parks  8/27/99

An edible baker's dozen or just a plain old unlucky number, The Thirteenth Warrior is the umpteenth film that has been adapted from a Michael Crichton novel (Eaters of the Dead). The most successful was, of course, the blockbuster Jurassic Park, though this new film will not come anywhere near that kind of success. Yet, if you are fond of swashbuckling adventure, The Thirteenth Warrior offers a worthy 100-minute diversion, if not much else.

The plot is simple, but promising, and draws comparisons to both Waterworld and The Road Warrior, both of which feature an outsider hero that joins a besieged group against a more powerful enemy. In this case, an Arab poet (Antonio Banderas as Ibn Fadlan) is sent as an ambassador to the barbarous Vikings as a sort of banishment for staring at the wrong wife. When he meets up with the nasty Norsemen, he is enlisted as the extra odd-numbered warrior to battle a mysterious band of flesh-eating bad guys and save the barraged Norse village. The enemy in this case is a demonic cabal of cannibalistic primitives who worship the spirit of the bear, and are quite appropriately despicable and dangerous. Along the way, we are told, Ibn Fadlan finds his "manhood" after surviving the slings and sword-slashes of warfare.

More so than his movies, Crichton's books are always intellectually and philosophically deeper than the mere fantasies they appear to be. I haven't read the book, but the film is a testament to contemporary views of multiculturalism. The more civilized, monotheistic Muslim not only learns to tolerate the brutish, pagan Norsemen, he evens adopts many of their ways, including praying with them. Whereas the message of multiculturalism is meritorious when the issue of tolerating, befriending and ultimately loving others is concerned, the religious implications further undermine the central idea of universal, absolute truth. Is one creed as good as another? Were the Vikings as equally enlightened in their own way as the Arabs? As Jews or Christians? Does specific faith in something or Someone really make a difference, or is the very presence of any nebulous faith sufficient?

These ideas prove to be more interesting than the movie allows, suggesting once more that the book may be better than the film. The movie itself is a sloppy but mostly entertaining mess. Incomplete elements such as mediocre acting and clumsy action footage compete with an interesting premise and picturesque sets and scenes, but add up to less than most viewers will expect. If nothing else The Thirteenth Warrior shows that better-made, more interesting yarns about the Vikings' hacking, cracking, and sword-whacking could merit more screen time.

 Steven S. Baldwin   9/9/99