Reviewing a movie that was released nearly ten years ago might seem a tad redundant, but sometimes a movie grabs your attention and holds onto you for years on end. It might not be the greatest of movies, or have won any awards, but something about the combination of plot, characters, and actors makes it special for you. For me one such movie was the 1999 release The Thirteenth Warrior.
Now I've always had a soft spot for sword-and-sorcery type adventure stories (the absolutely horrible Conan movies prove there's an exception to every rule), so this movie would seem like a good fit for me right from the start. The irony is that I had been so turned off by the previews and the television spots that I had seen for it that I never would have even picked up the DVD to rent a few years back if it wasn't for one thing – Antonio Banderas.
I had always dismissed Banderas as just another action figure actor – you know, made of plastic and looks good in a kid's meal – until I saw him in the first modern re-make of Zorro with Anthony Hopkins. His wit and charm, and the fact that he could act, were revelations, so I started to pick up other movies that featured him that I had previously avoided. The romantic comedy Miami Rhapsody, where he co-starred with Mia Farrow and Sarah Jessica-Parker, and the two Robert Rodriguez films Desperado and Once Upon A Time In Mexico where he played the guitar player-turned-vigilante.
In each of those movies not only was that first impression of a witty and charming man re-enforced, he also showed a capacity for playing against "type" that I found refreshing. Of all things it was probably Miami Rhapsody that made me decide to pick up The Thirteenth Warrior for the first time, as Banderas was so "not" an action hero in that role. Playing a male nurse fending off the affections of the wife (Farrow) of the man he's caring for while falling in love with his daughter (Parker) he was anything but the macho Latin Lover stereotype with which he had been painted.
In The Thirteenth Warrior Banderas plays Arab poet Ahmed, who has been exiled for looking at the wrong woman and is sent off to be an ambassador to some unknown European court. En route the caravan he is travelling with is set upon by Tartars who chase them into a Viking encampment on the edge of civilization. Ahmed is there only for a day when he is roped into a war party headed back to the where the Vikings come from – the soothsayer has said that thirteen warriors must go on the mission and the thirteenth can not be a Viking. He just so happens to be the only non-Viking in camp at the time and finds that he really has no choice in the matter.
Okay so it does strain at the edges of credulity a bit, that an Arab would stumble across a group of Vikings in the first place and then be called upon to join their raiding party, but while watching the movie it doesn't seem hard to suspend disbelief. In fact the script that was adapted from a Michael Crichton novel, by Crichton and two others, works so smoothly that you don't really have a chance until afterwards to ask questions. Remember this is the guy that sold the world on the idea that a tiny speck of dinosaur DNA in a mosquito preserved in a piece of amber would be enough to bring the big beasts back to life. Suspension of disbelief is his middle name.
One of the nicest parts of the script was that it allowed time for a relationship to develop between the Banderas character and the Viking party. Initially it's obvious that each don't have the highest opinion of the other. Ahmed thinks they are loud, crude, and obnoxious barbarians who haven't a brain between them, while they just think he's beneath their notice. Each night of the long trek across Russia to the sea, we see the party gather around the camp fire, and each night we see Ahmed gradually piecing together their language. From what is at first incomprehensible grunts, words start to gradually appear, and eventually he is able to jump into the conversation.
The leader of the Vikings Buliwyf (played wonderfully by Russian Vladimir Kulich) and Herger (Norwegian actor Dennis Storhoi), the man who becomes Ahmed's closest friend among the Vikings, are the ones who are most responsible for building the bridge between the men. Buliwyf impresses Ahmed not only with his leadership abilities, but his intelligence, and it is impossible not to like Herger – whose name translates literally as Joyous. (All the men in the Viking party have names which describe either a main characteristic or something about them – Tony Curran's character for instance is named Weath, meaning Musician)
It turns out that Buliwyf and his band have been called home to help a friend fight off an invading force. At first they believe that they are a mysterious group of creatures called the Wendol – man-eating demons of myth – but in the end they just turn out to be fanatical warriors seeking to kill all who stand in their way. They make good use of myth and people's superstitions to create an aura of invincibility and fear around them, but it soon turns out they die as easily as the next person when a sword passes through their stomach.
That doesn't make it any easier to defeat them, as they are fearsome fighters and outnumber Buliwyf's little party by a huge margin. Our heroes are forced to seek out their enemy's home in an effort to slay their head priestess which supposedly will sap their strength and take away their will to fight. Even that doesn't end it though, and it all comes down to a climatic battle between Buliwyf and the Wendols' war leader.
Crichton had obviously adapted the old Beowulf saga when he wrote his novel, and the movie captures enough of that atmosphere that when I recently watched The Thirteenth Warrior again I was constantly being reminded of the movie Beowulf & Grendel without initially knowing why. Of course once you think about it, it's obvious – it has all the same basic elements of the saga. A stalwart hero leads a small group of men to fight an unspeakable evil that is threatening a friendly kingdom.
While the DVD version I own is widescreen and includes a 5.1 surround sound audio track, it didn't come with any special features save for the theatrical trailer for the film. (That's a practice I've never understood – why watch the trailer for the movie that you own and have already watched?) However, don't let that dissuade you from buying this movie as it is a wonderfully acted, well directed, and excellently scripted adventure story. The Thirteenth Warrior is a cut above the usual action adventure movie that gets put out by Hollywood, and probably more than a match for any of the recent releases in the genre. I don't think there are many movies out there that can match it for pure action and escapist fun.