Reviewed by Chris Galloway
Disney, widescreen 2.35:1/16x9, languages: English DD 5.1 [CC], French Digital Stereo, subtitles: none, single side-single layer, 17 chapters, theatrical trailer, rated R, 103 min., $29.99, street date 1/18/00.
Directed by John McTiernan. Starring Antonio Banderas, Diane Venora, Dennis Storhoi, Vladimir Kulich, Omar Sharif, Anders T. Andersen.
Antonio Banderas brings huge star power to an immensely thrilling action-adventure from the hit-making director of Die Hard and The Thomas Crown Affair! An exiled ambassador far from his homeland, Ahmed (Banderas) comes across a fierce band of warriors who are being attacked by ferocious creatures legendary for devouring all living things in their path! And when an old fortune-teller warns the combatants that they are doomed to failure without a 13th Warrior, Ahmed is given no choice but to join their battle and help conquer the mysterious enemy! Suspenseful and endlessly exciting, this exhilarating hit is sure to thrill anyone who enjoys action on an epic scale!
Might as well admit this now, I went to art school a few years back and while there a friend and I attended movies on a regular basis. We would hit the more obscure ones, I guess we felt as artists (a little chuckle there), it was appropriate.
Well, we escaped that and went to see The Big Lebowski (which is like a Farelly brothers take on an art movie) one night and were welcomed with a couple of theatrical trailers. The Avengers was first (that looked cool, but little did we know) and it was followed by one called Eaters of the Dead. That we couldn't make out much. All we knew is that John McTiernan directed and Antonio Banderas starred. It's fast cuts which made it look kind of interesting and we thought "hey, it might not be too bad." I mean, it looked like a brainless action movie, but done well, they can distract me enough to ignore the fact there's no story.
It never came out and it faded from memory. Then last summer, a year and a half years later I saw another trailer that sort of resembled an ad I saw back then, except it was called The 13th Warrior. I had lost any interest to see it by then so it wasn't on top of my list. As it turns out the author, Michael Crichton, did not like how McTiernan handled the film and reshot some scenes and even did some re-editing. Of course, to me, a movie delayed for this long is not a good sign. But thanks to a different friend, who's not into arty films, convinced me to see it. While it was better than I thought, it was still a brainless action film that still couldn't distract me enough to ignore the lack of a plot.
The movie's beginning is kind of confusing I found. Antonio Banderas has been banished from his Arabic home, becoming a diplomat in Viking country, and while traveling with someone that looks an awful like Omar Shariff (yeah, I know it's him), they come across a group of Vikings. The Vikings are burning the body of their King and have elected a new one. A message is delivered of a tribe, beasts of some sort, attacking a village far off and assistance is needed. Seven Samurai begins to ring in here. 13 warriors are needed (for some reason that I still don't get, even after this second viewing on DVD), 12 of them being Vikings volunteering. The 13th has to be a foreigner. So guess which schmuck gets picked up. Yep, Antonio! Go Antonio (I admit, I love that name)!
That covers the plot pretty much, not getting into anything else. I didn't like it, as you can tell, upon my first viewing. But I was willing to give it a second chance on DVD, and it still didn't do much for me. It's incredibly slow, rather boring, and has nothing of interest when something's not getting decapitated on-screen.
All of the filmmakers' effort is concentrated in the action scenes, as when they occur are outstanding, nothing happens for me to care in between them.
The first thing dealt with is the fact these two cultures don't speak the same language. Antonio sits with these Vikings for a long period of time and picks up their language. For these scenes to be shown properly, subtitles would have to be used, but then that wouldn't make for your standard summer movie. But I will give McTiernan a bunch of bonus points for how he got past this obstacle. While we have Antonio listening in on their conversations, told in a completely foreign language, an English word is thrown in here and there, signifying that Antonio is now understanding a bit of what they are saying. Once all they are speaking is English, this means Antonio can understand them, and hit them with some good comebacks. Other than the action scenes, this is the closest thing to a masterstroke in the film.
The characters, though, seem to have interesting bits to them, but they aren't expanded on fully. The newly appointed King seems like a character dying to get out, but is suppressed by a lazy script. Antonio's character is the same way. The characters have the potential of reaching fully three-dimensional heights but just don't. This makes for extremely boring moments in between battle segments. Since Antonio was actually pretty good, I think it would have helped if he had more to work with. He's pretty good with a two-dimensional character. I bet he would have been good, given a more developed script. Or maybe 2-dimensions is his limit.
Another disappointing thing about the film is that the tribe they are at war with seem like interesting people, I must say. The book, Eaters of the Dead, written by Michael Crichton, focuses more on them, and accordingly they were an actual tribe! The movie doesn't focus enough on them. We know they dress up in beast outfits, claws and all, convincing people they are monsters. And they are also cannibals. They never come across as more than this I'm sad to say. I would have liked a little more of a history into them, rather than just having them as the villains here.
Length is also a problem. Since the movie has so little plot and character, almost 2 hours is WAY too long (and it feels WAY longer than that). I felt like I was being teased as to when it would end, only to see the movie stretched out longer and that grew very frustrating in no time.
The battle scenes are what make the movie worth sitting through (even a second time). They are very well done and exciting. Sometimes hard to follow, but that adds to the confusion the characters must be feeling. I remember in the theater the night scenes were harder to see and follow but on DVD, they look much better (more on that later). They are violent, bloody exciting and very well choreographed. I think the film has a lot to owe to Seven Samurai, mostly in the set-up and execution, but they are handled a little better, only because the filmmaking technology and technique now are far more advanced. There are a few of these and they last a while. These offered enough of a distraction that I forgot what a bad movie I was watching. Whether these are McTiernans or Crichtons is beyond me, but they're pretty sweet. I would actually like to see McTiernan's cut sometime. I don't know if it would be any better, but I'd like to see what Crichton saw so wrong with it.
Disney's DVD is their usual fair. Kickass sound and picture and no friggin' supplements. The film is presented in an ANAMORPHICALLY ENHANCED (sorry, I just couldn't believe it myself) widescreen ratio of about 2.35:1 on this single sided, single layered DVD. It's nice that someone at Disney woke up and realized people want that. And they also seem to be finally picking the right movies to do it with.
And they seem to have a knack for it already. I am very impressed I must say. The movie is dull on the colour spectrum but that doesn't hurt the image here, which can usually happen. All colors are well saturated, with no bleeding or smearing anywhere. The picture is consistently sharp, the detail is absolutely amazing, allowing me to pick out every little bit of dirt on our heroes faces.
The down conversion displays no faults I could see. No jagged edges, no moiré effects or shimmering. Everything is well detailed and looks generally perfect. Grains appear in a couple dark scenes, but these don't distract. As well, really bright scenes (like at the beginning) are somewhat soft, but it's not too bad.
I mentioned before how dark scenes were hard to see in the theater, here they display a little better. Black levels are perfect so they aren't too dark or too weak. I found this allowed the detail of the darker scenes to contrast better. Maybe the theater's projection was not set up properly, but all I know is that these scenes look a whole lot better and flow more smoothly.
While I am impressed with the high quality of the picture, the best thing about the disc is the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track. Man, this thing kicks some major ass. Dialogue is mostly contained in the front channels but everything else uses the other channels to terrific effect. The environment is absolutely amazing, pulling you right in.
The battle scenes are what rock this thing. Swords crashing, horse galloping, people yelling, it completely surrounds you, filling up all space. The extra channel comes into great use as horses appear to just storm by you. That banging is very nice indeed. It's not just battle scenes that use this. Just about any scene involving water uses all the channels and since these guys are Vikings, you get a bit of that. This is a very engulfing soundstage that will definitely not disappoint. If I have to sit through some of the lenghty boring scenes, this is the best thing that could happen. Whoo-hoo!
As for the supplements, and what do you know! Nothing! Oh wait, a pretty lame trailer, that's it. I would have liked something on the whole delay bit or on why Crichton redid the film, but I guess a studio would never admit to having troubles with a film, especially Disney, because they are oh-so-perfect.
In closing, my dislike for the film is still strong, although it contains moments that can blow the viewer away. But the DVD is top notch in sound and picture, just lacking in extras (at least give us a making-of-featurette, come on guys!). The first two fields should definitely please DVD collectors that like to demonstrate their home theater setups. If you like the film, go all the way my friends and get it because the DVD is perfect for the film. Otherwise, forget it.
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