Tuesday, July 07, 2009

“The farmers say they come with the mist.”

As if there was any other movie that I could use for my thirteenth movie? John McTiernen’s 1999 Viking action flick starring Antonio Banderas, The 13th Warrior.

It’s The Seven Samurai meets Beowulf, basically. A poet is essentially banished from Bagdad for falling in love with a powerful man’s wife, becomes an ambassador to the Northmen, and is recruited (because of an oracle) to join twelve Viking warriors to stop…something that has besieged a lord’s realm and started killing the people. ADVENTURE! follows.

Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan: Antonio Banderas plays the Arab poet sent away from Bagdad for making googly-eyes at the wrong wife. He spends the rest of the movie as our point-of-view character and the team’s official fish out of water, as the movie inserts various culture clash jokes. Learns how to man-up and become a warrior, gets drunk on mead and gets laid. He also ends up teaching the leader, Buliwyf, how to read/write a little and provides frequent insights/answers/noticing of things that the others sometimes miss. The only problem I have with him is that Banderas basically whispers all of his lines loudly (you’d have to see the movie itself to understand)

Buliwyf: A Viking prince and the leader of the crew of badasses sent to solve some guy named Hrothgar’s problem with the Wendol. Despite being the leader, he doesn’t get very chummy with Ahmed and the two don’t have many scenes together. He is clearly a badass though, because he wears anachronistic plate armor and doesn’t have to say much to get the audience’s attention. He merely stares at something and by Odin, you look.

The Wendol: So instead of a large troll-like creature, we get a large, cannibalistic primitive cave-dwelling society that likes face-paint and dressing up like bears. Its such an insane take on Grendel that I love it. There are two leaders of the Wendol, Mother Wendol, a crazy-eyed witch-like character covered in mud that lives deep underground, and the, for lack of a better word, captain, who is the war chief who “wears the horns of power.” They’re savage, cunning, and like taking heads, so they’re a perfect army of human monsters for our heroes to chop their way through.

Edgtho the Silent: He’s the Viking who dresses in all black and has superhuman senses. He can smell the perfume of an approaching rider, can tell when a mist is coming in, those sorts of things. He also makes use of a zipline at one point, which makes him like a ninja Viking. This is suitably awesome.

Herger the Joyous: The words “heroic sociopath” spring forward when thinking about Herger. He’s the first Viking to take Ahmed under his wing, showing him the ropes, encouraging him to acts of bravery. Not only that, but by modern standards, the character would be clinically insane. Literally laughing in the face of danger, Herger is fully committed to being a warrior, and easily gets the best lines of the movie in his banter with Ahmed. He is not only funny, but competent, quick, can speak several languages. Herger is my example of a hilarious badass thriving in an action movie, and my pick for Badass of the Movie.

Others: Omar Sharif has a small role in the beginning as Ahmed’s mentor/friend who helps introduce him to the Vikings. The rest of the 13 Warriors don’t really get a whole lot of characterization and/or development time, but more on that later.

Visuals (Direction/Effects)
I like what McKiernan (and Chrichton himself) shot for this movie. The locations feel suitably Scandinavian territory, but it was shot in British Columbia apparently. The mood is urgent when necessary, foreboding when required, and things are done quite well. The effects are rooted in the makeup and practical effects, and there’s quite a bit of gore when they warriors investigate a cabin in the woods attacked by the Wendol. Indeed, one of the bodies hanging from the ceiling seems like a Predator reference, which makes sense since McTiernan directed that movie as well.

Now, being an action movie, how’s the action? The first fight, when the warriors encounter the Wendol for the first time, is mostly dark and kind of hard to figure out everything that’s going on. The first major assault on the town is amazingly well done, the duel between Herger and some guy named Angus is fantastic, the assault on the Wendol cave is pretty good, and I have mixed feelings about the last battle. Its shot in the rain and mostly in slow motion. Now, I’m not sure when it happened, but somewhere down the line, I started to get fed up with slow-motion final battle scenes. I don’t fault the movie for doing it, since I like the last fight for being suitably epic, but the slow-mo does nothing for me anymore.

Sadly, from what I’ve read on IMDB, the movie was both savagely edited down by the studio and then shelved for two years before being released. That makes me sad, because the movie that we have now is not the one that Chrichton and McTiernan wanted to show us. The editing chop job shows through in most of the character arcs for the lesser Vikings. Most of them only get a few lines, despite each having a different look and attitude. The one with the facial tattoos, Skeld the Superstitious, looks like had an arc where he went from being hostile to Ahmed to getting along fine that is missing from the final cut. Even Buliwyf seems shortchanged for character growth. I would be highly interested in a director’s cut if it were ever made available.

WritingBased on a Michael Crichton novel that I’ve been meaning to find and read, but haven’t yet. Again, I think the take on Beowulf is rather novel (no pun intended). I understand the “edited to pieces” thing, but in all, it does move very briskly. What the writing does most effectively, is capture a genuinely “Viking” spirit. It doesn’t try to deconstruct a proud warrior people, it simply presents a proud warrior people. It doesn’t try to explain “why the Vikings kill everything” or “why the Wendol attack the village” or give any of those other anachronistically “modern” angst. The 13 Warriors have a job to do, and there is no question that it can’t be solved by Viking violence. This isn’t to say that they’re completely uncivilized brutes like the Wendol. The historical Vikings had a complex society and way of doing things, but life was difficult and violence was a part of it. You’ll understand what I mean when we get to other movies set in this time period. Its refreshingly anti-modern, and I tip my hat to William Wisher and Warren Lewis for delivering something unapologetically “Viking”

Jerry Goldsmith delivers an orchestral score that is bombastic and epic, but also throws in Arabic touches, since Ahmed’s the main character. That’s a nice addition, but really, the combination of martial drumbeats and French horns makes for some great asskicking ADVENTURE! music.

The 13th Warrior is enormously entertaining 90 minutes of Viking goodness and I will shout loudly at anyone who disagrees until they submit to my opinion (which is obviously the right one). The historian in me sighs and dies a little bit each time I see it, but the immature inner child pumps his fist during every fight. Hell yes do I recommend this distilled sampling of awesomesauce while simultaneously hoping for a director’s cut somewhere down the road.

No comments: