|Alan Jones's Movie Reviews is just one part of Starburst's monthly Reviews section. In every issue: a TV View, from the US or UK: our popular Bookshelf section on the latest Sci-Fi/Fantasy novels, plus Soundtracks, games and websites in Cybertech, take-home releases in Videofile and DVD File, plus John Brosnan's It's Only A Movie|
Thor blimey! Even Michael Crichton's famous brand name won't save this long-on-the-shelf adaptation of his early novel Eaters of the Dead directed by Die Hard maestro John McTiernan. Every so often McTiernan's action smarts desert him (eg Medicine Man) and that is most definitely the case with this very old-fashioned historical Horror thriller which plays like The Vikings meets Congo. Re-edited by Crichton against McTiernan's wishes (hence the co-directing credit), The 13th Warrior isn't quite this year's Species because it contains some extraordinary photography by Peter Menzies and a glorious soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith. Both go some way in weaving a pleasing spell around Crichton's reworking of the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf legend even as the farcial missteps continually mount up to eventually ruin the initial atmosphere of dirtied-down dread.
Set in 922 AD, Antonio Banderas stars as Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, an Arab emissary virtually abducted by a band of Vikings to join a dangerous quest to Norway. It seems the manor of King Hrothgar (SvenWollter) is under attack by flesh-eating 'Spirits in the Mist' and the ailing royal has asked for help to save his diminishing population from the ethnic cleansing by digestion.
Once in the land of the midnight sun, the Wendol clan are quickly discovered to be humans disguised as bears who live in mountain caves surrounded by millions of skulls. So Ahmad, after getting over the shock of how barbaric his adopted compatriots are, learns how to be adept with the heavy broadsword he smelts into a scimitar and advises Viking leader Prince Buliwif (Vladimir Kulich) about the best ways of infiltrating the Wendol centre of limb-roasting operations in order to triumph over their blood-drinking adversaries.
Clearly conceived as a Norse Excalibur, it's the visually arresting quality of McTiernan's fudged fable which impresses the most. Reaching stunning heights during the night time stand-off between the visiting Vikings and the torch-bearing cannibal cavalry, this central act of carnage is a burnished orgy of fiery glowing and shadowy heroics. Crichton's glimpse into the forces of medieval darkness is also the second mainstream movie this year (Ravenous being the first) to highlight graphic slaughter, gory head-ripping and shocking disembowelling meaning the title 'Friday the 13th Warrior' could just as easily apply.
But for every such interesting slant to the saga, there's always a horrible gaffe lurking round the corner. Dialogue along the lines of "What about Olaf" and the sudden brainwave of Queen Weilew (Diane Venora) to ask advice from another ancient oracle, after suffering two debilitating skirmishes that obviously could have been avoided, beggar belief. Venora and Omar Sharif (Ahmad's travelling companion Melchisidek) have obviously suffered from Crichton's re-editing process as both are practically non-existent in the final cut despite having top-billing above the Heavy Metal influenced Viking band.
Although never boring, The 13th Warrior is never really that exciting either despite great care (and $60 million) being lavished on the authentic production design and gloomy locations. It's actually all over once the Wendol are found to be human as all Fantasy mystique evaporates into mundane reality. But not since The Norseman in 1978, starring Lee Majors as a permed Six Million Dollar Viking, has Odin visited your local Odeon is such a spectacular fashion. So for novelty value alone, it may be worth your while checking Crichton's Valhalla West World out.
|Read full reviews of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and Wild Wild West in Starburst #253|