Long-delayed and rumored to be a laughable mess, the John McTiernan?directed Viking adventure The 13th Warrior is actually a well-marbled, albeit derivative, slab of action-movie man meat. Essentially a time-displaced subspecies of those familiar military gambols where an untested civvy is thrown in with the violent, musty men, Warrior was adapted from Eaters of the Dead, Michael Crichton’s “realistic” retelling of Beowulf. It opens in appropriately crypto-historical fashion with actual historical figure Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan (a game Antonio Banderas), a 10th-century Arab poet banished to an ambassadorship in the wilds of Norse Europe. His exile is a baffled tour of curious local ways until the locals’ longhaired leader Buliwyf (a stony-eyed Vladimir Kulich) receives an appeal from another kinglet for aid against a mysterious threat. Buliwyf and 11 of his warriors immediately suit up, dragging Ahmed along after the resident witch-woman decrees the 13th warrior cannot be a Norseman.
Given the rotely atrocious treatment meted out to Arabs in Hollywood action flicks, Ahmed’s adventures do have a minorly refreshing cast to them. (That said, there is something typically unfortunate about the lack of an Arab actor for the lead, or the way it seems you have to reach back 1000 years in order to avoid most contemporary stereotypes.) Inverting the traditional big-screen take on noble savagery, the literate and darkly handsome Ahmed is the civilized eye observing the pale-faced Norse, who come off as the brutish, illiterate, swine-eating trailer trash of Europe. When he arrives at their hard-luck destination, a threatened Norse village, Ahmed’s stunned that human beings still live in such primitive conditions, but once his group crosses swords with the enemy (a persistently neolithic band of cannibals), he realizes the one thing trailer trash do know loads about is killing. Ahmed’s almost foppish facility with a one-handed scimitar (the broadsword-wielding Norse keep calling his weapon a girl’s knife) soon makes him one of the guys, and his exile becomes a kind of medieval student exchange, Ahmed learning about cold-weather heroism and war craft while teaching Buliwyf smart-people stuff like readin’ and writin’ and monotheism.
Warrior‘s story line is a frayed bundle–there are unfulfilled intimations of supernatural hijinks and royal intrigue–but the loose ends are overshadowed by the expertly choreographed fight sequences, overwritten by the always moving spectacle of the legitimately heroic and well-met death. (Moving to me at least, or anyone with a thing for Tolkien or Arthurian legend or Klingons.) Ultimately the movie’s biggest asset and problem is its basic anachronism–the visit to this epic, macho oasis is stirring even as it underscores just how thoroughly exhausted most action-adventure tropes have become. As one of the Norsemen tells Ahmed, “This is the old way; you will not see this again,” and although The 13th Warrior doesn’t quite know if it’s trying to reinvigorate or eulogize its own genre, the curious thing is that he’s right.