“The 13th Warrior” emerges from a couple of years on the shelf as a bloody but anemic story of he-men with broad swords and long ships fighting off marauding cannibals dressed in bear skins. Fans of Viking pictures who for years have anxiously anticipated another large-scale entry in the thinly populated genre will at least find their hunger sated temporarily by the rugged action sequences and sporadic butchery. But true satisfaction will have to await another day, as Michael Crichton’s story is underdeveloped and narrow in range, resulting in a tale more curious for its odd confluence of elements than for their edifying deployment. The best that can be hoped for is that the names of Crichton, director John McTiernan and lead Antonio Banderas will lure their fans for some good opening-frame figures, but women aren’t likely to respond and commercial downslide looks to be rapid.
Although produced in 1997 — before McTiernan’s current release, “The Thomas Crown Affair” — and the subject of reported significant reworking by co-producer Crichton in recent months, “Warrior” shows only limited signs of post-production surgery or stitching. There are subsidiary characters and possible subplots, notably involving an old Norse king and his treacherous son, that were likely pushed to the edges, but yarn moves along in orderly three-act fashion and delivers the expected quotient of blood and guts.
What William Wisher and Warren Lewis’ adaptation of Crichton’s 1976 novel “Eaters of the Dead” also serves up, however, is an odd combo of civilized rather than primitive-minded talk, some vaguely conceived mumbo-jumbo about unmentionable flesh-eating beasts that are soon revealed for what they really are, and a promising but finally unrealized contrasting of Western and Eastern cultures, circa the 10th century. In the end, pic is an old-fashioned potboiler with half-baked serious intentions sprinkled about.
The intriguing hero is Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan (Banderas), a highly cultured poet from Baghdad who, per Crichton in the production notes, was a historical figure who encountered Norsemen during his travels in Central Asia and whose writings provide one of the few firsthand accounts of such people during this period. Here, Ibn is exiled to a distant land for coveting the wrong woman but is soon coerced into joining a band of mostly blond fellows who require a non-Nordic 13th warrior to help them fight rampaging fiends who are terrorizing their land.
Pic deftly handles the language problem that is normally skirted in such fare by having Ibn’s traveling companion (Omar Sharif) find a Norseman who speaks some Greek and then translate for the younger man, who bides his time attentively until he’s absorbed enough of their language to begin speaking it himself, whereupon all dialogue slides into English. After a storm at sea, the rugged band makes landfall to find that their small community has been slaughtered and partly consumed by horrid creatures who attack in nocturnal mist and leave clawed footprints as big as those of giant bears.
The old king of the decimated Norse tribe is fading fast, and the attention given to court intrigue is so glancing that one can only suspect major cuts were made in this now-dull material; one victim of this is second-billed Diane Venora, who plays the queen and delivers but a handful of meaningless lines.
Most of the running time, therefore, goes to the brawny men and their preparations for the onslaught of marauders that will surely come with the first fog. Eventual nighttime battle is certainly brutal, albeit with clear views of the furry invaders avoided, much as the Morlocks were obscured in the 1960 version of “The Time Machine,” so as to prolong “suspense” over their true nature.
One part of the film aspires to be a sort of Middle Ages “Night of the Living Dead,” but McTiernan shows no interest in maximizing the creepy tension inherent in the plight of a handful of terrified people waiting for the ghastly attack they know is coming; instead of quietly building a sense of dread, pic remains overbusy and loud, thanks in part to Jerry Goldsmith’s insistently bombastic score.
There is hacking and impaling aplenty, as well there might be, but pic falls short on all the other fronts where it had chances to excel. Ibn is presented as a devout Mohammedan whose spiritual and artistic bents are meant to contrast with the more primitive and pagan ways of his temporary comrades. A few uncouth habits to the side, however, the forest men behave in a remarkably rational and reasonable manner that provides meager conflict with the attitudes of their sophisticated guest. It is not surprising, then, that the film conjures up little sense of a barbaric and starkly terrifying time and place.
On the visual side, too, pic is not all it might have been; the requisite action is up there on the screen, but the compositions of McTiernan and lenser Peter Menzies Jr. lack boldness and true epic stature.
In the sort of role that might once have been played by Tyrone Power or Victor Mature, Banderas cuts a fine figure with his black robes and white horse and becomes picturesquely scarred over the course of the various battles. The Norsemen have names that will have the former Monty Python players drooling over missed opportunities — Herger the Joyous, Skeld the Superstitious, Helfdane the Large and so on — but they’re a mostly amiable bunch who aren’t unamusing to be around.
Ultimately, pic is not as bad as its long hibernation period suggested, but it does count as a more or less muffed opportunity in a genre that could use some fresh ideas. Heavily wooded British Columbian locations substitute plausibly for northern Euro settings.