If Judge David Johnson makes it to Valhalla, there better be plenty of mead and Ring Dings.
Editor's Note: In honor of our 10th Anniversary, we are posting reviews our Judges submitted as applications for DVD Verdict. This was Dave Johnson's try out piece, submitted 17 September 2003, with the tagline "In a nutshell: Love DVD's. Love movies. Love writing. Love writing about DVD's and movies. Please consider me to join you on your esteemed, digital bench." More than 1500 reviews later, he shows no signs of slowing down.
In the long-standing tradition of the Black Sheep genre, with an outcast juxtaposed with a polarized group wary of a newcomer (think Training Day, Aliens) comes John McTiernan's The 13th Warrior, starring Antonio Banderas as Antonio Banderas as an Arab. His character, an exiled poet and philosopher in 922 A.D., finds himself the new kid on the block with a ship full of Nordic powerlifters with unpronounceable names and a charge to find and defeat an ancient evil force.
Facts of the Case
Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan (Banderas) has been jettisoned from his cushy Arabian penthouse by a jealous caliph, and sentenced to wander the uncivilized world with his translator and confidant, Melchisidek (Omar Sharif). One day, the duo runs into a group of Vikings, come ashore to bury their dead king. While squatting at their camp, Fahdlan becomes privy to a fear-inducing message from a Nordic errand boy: his king's village in under siege by a dark, destructive evil that may or may not be supernatural. Under the mandate of a bones-reading incoherent hag, thirteen men are chosen to go to the aid of the threatened kingdom. The catch? One of the party must not be a Northman. Enter Ahmed, and with him, a big-horned-helmet-o-plenty of terrifying journeys, storm-swept boat rides, cultural faux pas, slow-turning meat on a spit, drunkenness, boisterous laughter, submissive maidens, hard-earned trust, and, of course, glorious, relentless, unadulterated Viking ass-kicking.
For a guys' night out, one can hardly do better than The 13th Warrior. Any movie with Vikings as prominent characters automatically qualifies it for some kind of coolness, but when these blond, brooding, blue-eyed hulks are called into service by a crazy, one-eyed king to lay waste to malicious marauders wearing fur coats and bone jewelry, there is tons of red-meat fun to be had.
McTiernan, with considerable contribution from Michael Crichton (whose book The Eaters of the Dead the film is based upon) aims for a rollicking, tightly-paced swashbuckler…and lands it.
Though there are moments when the pace lingers, the interaction between Fahdlan and his surrogate gang members is compelling and the action scenes are down and dirty, with mud and blood slung in every direction. This testosterone-infused, special-ops assemblage navigates all manner of trouble, from fortified enemy strongholds to extra long swims to straight-up battlefield brawling. The war set pieces are large and rambunctious, utilizing fire, rain, grime darkness, pitchforks-cum-melee-weapons, reluctant townsfolk cannon fodder, and copious shots of huge, arcing sword swings.
Our protagonists, who, unsurprisingly, see their number diminish with each skirmish, all tend to bring different, small bits of character to the screen: there's the smart-mouth who doubts Fahdlan's usefulness to the group, the hulking brute the size of a city borough, the crotchety old archer, the silent-but-deadly assassin (sporting a fantastic perm-mullet), the wise-cracking cuss, and the noble, tragic hero who may or may not have wandered off the cover of a supermarket romance paperback.
Women's roles, however, are limited to the crazy witch who reads the bones in the beginning, a deranged seer who speaks cryptic nonsense, the previously mentioned, promiscuous maiden, and a savage antagonist who gets personally introduced to the business end of a broadsword. Not Lifetime-caliber roles here.
The exterior shots are sweeping and magnificent, in a snazzy 2:35:1 widescreen transfer. The gloomy, rain shots look great; some of the darker battle and cave scenes do get a little blurry, but the edges are sharp and colors are rendered nicely.
The disc features a fairly aggressive Dolby Digital 5.1 surround that really rocks when the arrows start flying in the battle scenes. With a suitable subwoofer, your internal organs will shake when horses gallop en masse.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The movie is a blast. But don't expect anything more. The extras are nil. No commentaries, no deleted scenes, no mention as to what the film looked like before Crichton's more hands-on involvement.
I love this movie dearly. It moves fast. The scenery is gorgeous. The mayhem is more-than-satisfying. The Vikings themselves are consummate bad-asses, looking like angry-at-the-world, out-of-work Nordic junior high phys ed. teachers.
Banderas and crew are free to roam the countryside to slaughter anything that moves. Touchstone, with its blasé approach to DVD extras, is to remain behind on a work-release program, milking yaks.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
• Theatrical Trailer
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