Savage Vikings are outwitted by one of their own in "Pathfinder," a visionary chest-thumper set 600 years before Columbus. This latest bit of historical balder-dash stands in direct defiance of proven action-movie formulas, trusting its brutal concept and striking visuals to overcome a lack of star power.

Savage Vikings are outwitted by one of their own in “Pathfinder,” a visionary chest-thumper set 600 years before Columbus. Boldly reinventing Norway’s 1988 Oscar nominee “Ofelas,” musicvid director Marcus Nispel relocates the adventure to primeval America, where evidence suggests the European invaders landed but did not last. Like “300” and “Apocalypto,” this latest bit of historical balder-dash stands in direct defiance of proven action-movie formulas, trusting its brutal concept and striking visuals to overcome a lack of star power. But without a muscular campaign, “Pathfinder” will likely draw only a fraction of their biz, despite “Conan”-like appeal to testosterone crowds.

Pic rolled out earlier this year in a dozen overseas territories and has grossed almost $10 million to date.

Permitting herself considerable creative license, screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis imagines what might have stopped Vikings from settling in North America. Story opens at the end of a failed first expedition as a lone Wampanaog Indian woman discovers a frightened young orphan in the belly of a smoldering Norse “dragon ship.” She takes him home, where he is accepted into the tribe.

Fifteen years later, the invaders return, only now, the abandoned young man has grown into “Lord of the Rings” and “Xena: Warrior Princess” veteran Karl Urban, an oddly proportioned action hero whose Hugh Jackman-like facial features sit perched atop a beefcake frame. Urban spends most of the movie wearing little more than a leather loincloth, though editors Jay Friedkin and Glen Scantlebury seem to be working overtime cutting around his bulky but sub-Spartan physique.

While Urban strains to carry the movie, it is the monstrous Vikings who actually prove most compelling. An ominous lot, they lumber about in silhouette like the dark Orcs from Ralph Bakshi’s “Lord of the Rings” cartoons, while Renee April’s detailed costumes — all horns and skulls and metal scales — evoke the more recent live-action trilogy. The invaders’ gnarled snorts and guttural Icelandic dialogue strike a fearsome contrast to the mild-tempered, English-speaking natives.

Something is clearly afoot in Hollywood that projects about ancient Mayan, Spartan and Viking showdowns are being developed and released. As a follow-up to Nispel’s “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” remake, “Pathfinder” seems like sheer lunacy, the equivalent of Zack Snyder remaking Inuit chase movie “Atanarjuat the Fast Runner.” And yet, with a visual sense to rival Ridley Scott’s, Nispel ensures that every shot tells a story, mixing the meticulous landscape aesthetic of Hudson River School painters Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand with the macabre imagery of contemporary fantasy artists, enhanced by the helmer’s decision to shoot against real British Columbia wilderness.

Gone is the spare poetry and arctic mysticism of Gaup’s original. Instead, Nispel trades in dense, sophisticated compositions. Reteaming with regular lenser Daniel C. Pearl, he stacks every frame with layers of movement and texture from extreme foreground to deep, distant background. Yet the pic has difficulty carrying a thought from one shot to the next.

Individual shots pack a strong emotional punch, but entire scenes — such as a high-speed sled chase — unfold with numb, disorienting confusion. In general, the pic handles action well. Whether fending off bear attacks or a full-blown avalanche, Ghost (as Urban’s character is called) twirls his sword and attacks in the well-choreographed style of a true matinee idol.

But Nispel proves clumsy with actors, relying more on blocking than the nuances of actual performance. Characters are exaggerated cartoons, hardly human at all.

“Pathfinder’s” Vikings are certainly evil enough, but they are largely faceless and interchangeable, with no one personality more despicable than the others. To evoke the desired feelings, the pic instead relies on cues from the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus — half bone-rattling marches, half martyr-minded arias.

Pathfinder

Production

A 20th Century Fox release of a Phoenix Pictures production in association with Dune Entertainment and Major Entertainment Partners. Produced by Mike Medavoy, Arnold W. Messer, Marcus Nispel. Executive producers, Bradley J. Fischer, Lee Nelson, John M. Jacobsen. Co-producers, Vincent Oster, Barbara Kelly, Louis Phillips. Directed by Marcus Nispel. Screenplay, Laeta Kalogridis, based on a screenplay by Nils Gaup.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, widescreen), Daniel C. Pearl; editors, Jay Friedkin, Glen Scantlebury; music, Jonathan Elias; production designer, Greg Blair; costume designer, Renee April; sound (Dolby/DTS), Trevor Jolly; special effects coordinator, Alex Burdett; visual effects supervisor, Randy Goux; assistant director, Eric Fox Hays; casting, Lynne Carrow, Susan Brouse, Kathleen Tomasik. Reviewed at 20th Century Fox studios, Los Angeles, April 11, 2007. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 99 MIN. (English, Icelandic dialogue)

With

Ghost - Karl Urban Starfire - Moon Bloodgood Pathfinder - Russell Means Gunnar - Clancy Brown Blackwing - Jay Tavare Ulfar - Ralf Moeller

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