Think of "The 13th Warrior" as Akira Kurosawa's "The Seven Samurai" jacked on amphetamines.
This crazed Iron Age battle rhapsody is so overripe that its flies probably have flies, but that's not bad; it's good. It's why the film qualifies as the summer's primo guilty pleasure. It's red meat for the soul.
What I love most about it is its utter syntheticity: It hasn't a genuine bone in its body. Everyone in it or attached to it is imitating someone or something else. The director, John McTiernan (two "Die Hards," the original "Predator" and the new "Thomas Crown Affair") is imitating Kurosawa, except when he's imitating Sergei Eisenstein's "Alexander Nevsky." The composer, Jerry Goldsmith, is imitating Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana." Michael Crichton, who wrote the original novel ("Eaters of the Dead"), was imitating literature.
As a whole, the first 12 warriors are imitating an outlaw biker gang. More specifically, one of them, Dennis Storhoi, is imitating Errol Flynn. Another, Vladimir Kulich, is imitating Klaus Kinski in "Aguirre, the Wrath of God." And the biggest star, Antonio Banderas, is imitating Omar Sharif, which is the easiest imitation of all: He just had to look across the campfire because there's Sharif himself, in the role of the Wise Sidekick.
And folks, can't we agree on one thing: Any movie with four separate beheadings is pretty darned good entertainment.
Banderas, at once both charming and squirrelly, plays Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan, a 10th-century Arab diplomat-poet exiled from Baghdad in retaliation for his attraction to a powerful noble's wife. Interesting fact about the 10th century: They didn't have toothpaste or, for that matter, many teeth, but they did have Maybelline Eyeliner, which turns Banderas into Cher in the early going.
Somewhere in Central Asia, he runs across a very dirty dozen mercenaries, largely Viking in character but with a Scot, a Spaniard and what appears to be a Tasmanian (this is the Errol Flynn imitator) along for diversity. Ibn is contemptuous, maybe because they gargle from the same pot, which they also drink from, wash in and blow their noses into, and maybe because their names are so dopey: Herger the Joyous, Edgtho the Silent, Rethel the Archer, Weath the Musician and so forth. Steve the Critic was thinking: This is pretty goofy.
But there's a fjord in everybody's future. Word reaches them that back home, up some mythical, frosty, foggy crack of water, the folks are being assailed by legions of creepy beings who come out of the mists. The heroes are recalled from their careers in freebootery to deal with this crisis. But when a soothsayer--every screenwriter should be issued a soothsayer to get out of those tight plot corners--decrees that War Dog No. 13 must not be a Northman, they acquire the reluctant services of Ibn the Eyeliner Wearer.
Thus, as the only rational man among a group of yakky, laughing, death-loving, kill-counting, hygiene-disadvantaged, largely blond proto-Green Berets, Banderas's 13th guy is the hero. For them, courage is second nature, fearlessness first nature and head-crunching a nice hobby. Before battle, they nap; after battle, they party. During battle, they persevere or they die, and it makes little difference to them. For him, it's an effort. He's had sex with women who bathe at least once a month, so he knows the pleasures of civilization.
But the movie's real hero is its 14th warrior: This would be McTiernan's camera, which roams with supple athleticism through the carnage. McTiernan loves to penetrate the melee and find grace moments, odd details, new kinds of wounds, peculiar angles for arrows to pierce flesh, that sort of thing, then send the camera roaring upward to watch not only the struggle from on high but to contrast it with the beautiful mountains of Denmark, played by the beautiful mountains of British Columbia.
The movie pretty much follows the template of "The Seven Samurai," including the final battle in the rain to slow things down for slow-mo and turn the jagged spurts of jellied blood into exploding lava lamps. But it's the same progression: fortification, bonding, fraternizing with the village gals, early assault, counter-assault and final wet encounter. Not only did Kurosawa do it first; he did it better.
Kurosawa--this also applies to other great battle movies, like "Zulu," "Braveheart" and even "Saving Private Ryan"--found time to explain the strategic and topographical nature of the battle, so it made sense and we could understand its ebb and flow. McTiernan's melees, though bloody and energetic as all get-out, seem completely arbitrary, without regard to topography. The Bad Guys run at the Good Guys, and more of them die. The pedant in me wants to see the principle of creativity applied to the situation; I want to see them outthink, not merely outfight, the enemy.
There are other annoyances, the most irksome of which is anthropological. The enemy is revealed to be a race of beings--I think I give nothing too crucial away by acknowledging that they are not werewolves or bearmen--who live in caves and are sustained by an agricultural system that might be called human husbandry. They eat people. Yet, at the same time, they are able to field a bold, savvy and courageous cavalry unit, easily the rivals of the Sioux or the 14th-century Hussars. How do an underground people come up with horses, saddles, stirrups; where do they graze and train the animals? And, gee, wouldn't someone notice? Or am I taking this a little too seriously?
Of course, as you have probably guessed, there's a literary template under the movie template, which gives the movie the odd daily double of being the season's most violent, and also most literate, film. It's actually a certain lit class ordeal reimagined from the viewpoint of an outsider with access to an $80 million budget.
In other words, it pretends to dramatize authentic events, which, we understand, would acquire in the retelling over the generations a crust of legend, a polish of style through songs and tale-tellers and shamans of the night, and emerge a thousand-odd years later in all our sophomore years as "Beowulf."
When hero Buliwyf (Kulich) finally faces the Wendol Mother, a mud-faced, snake-bejeweled, finger-fang-wearing harridan definitely in need of a dental plan, we're not just witnessing a fight to the death between ancient enemies (civilization and chaos) but something else: the birth of the narrative tradition. That is, the novel. Go Beowulf-Buliwyf! Odin be with you! Kill Wendol-Grendl's mother! America's hacks thank you to this day!
The 13th Warrior (105 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for head-loppings, limb-slicings, spear-thrusting and teeth the color of lichen.