The 13th Warrior


No puss, no boots.

No puss, no boots.

(1999) Adventure (Touchstone) Antonio Banderas, Diane Venora, Omar Sharif, Vladimir Kulich, Clive Russell, Richard Bremmer, Dennis Storhoi, Daniel Southern, Neil Maffin, John Desantis, Mischa Hausserman, Asbjorn Riis, Tony Curran, Albie Woodington, Erick Avari, Sven Wolter, Anders T. Andersen, Bjorn Ole Pedersen, Sven-Ole Thorsen, Maria Bonnevie, Kaaren de Zilva, Layla Alizada. Directed by John McTiernan

The late Michael Crichton’s books have had an uneven history on the screen, ranging from the classic (Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain) to the mediocre (Sphere, The Terminal Man) to the downright awful (Congo).

The 13th Warrior, directed by John McTiernan and based on Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead, isn’t a classic. But the movie, which tanked at the box office when it was released in 1999, is a surprisingly good adventure flick and well worth some viewing time.

Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan (Banderas) is a poet living in 12th Century Baghdad who runs afoul of the local caliph when he has an eye-to-eye dalliance with another man’s wife. For his indiscretion, the impetuous Ahmed is sentenced to be ambassador to the barbarous Norsemen. Accompanied by his old friend Melchisidek (Sharif), he arrives in the encampment of the Norse king – just in time to witness the old king’s funeral.

The brooding new king Buliwyf (Kulich) accepts the new emissary into his camp albeit begrudgingly. However, all is upset by the arrival of a courier who brings a call for help from a neighboring king whose people are being slaughtered by mysterious, seemingly demonic killers. Buliwyf consults a seer, who tells him that only 13 warriors must go. Quickly, 13 strapping warriors, led by their king, volunteer for the quest; but the seer admonishes that the 13th warrior must not be from the Northlands.

So, Ahmed is volunteered. Along the way to the embattled kingdom, Ahmed goes from being the butt of the band’s jokes to being a respected member of the cadre; he even manages to learn their language by a means that is delivered to the screen in a particularly imaginative way.

Once they arrive at the beset city, they are confronted by seemingly bear-like creatures who turn out to be a tribe of men – bear cultists. The heroic band of fighters bond amongst themselves, fight their implacable foes and the political intrigue of the kingdom they have traveled to, and sow courage, sacrifice and honor – qualities rarely seen in the movies these days.

The scenery here is gorgeous; the mists and shadows of the North make for compelling cinematography. The acting is solid; the Vikings are hearty and likable much in the way they are stereotyped in our culture. Banderas’ Ahmed is cultured and debonair, but is also brave and lethal. He is referred to by his mates as “little brother” and he is indeed brother to the honest and open Norse. His strength isn’t just in his muscles but in his heart, which his commander recognizes is the place where strength counts the most.

Banderas, post-Zorro, was looking to settle into an action hero role but the movie’s box office failure scuttled that career for him essentially – while he has continued to do action roles off and on since then, he’s tended to do more dramas and romantic comedies than anything else which was a bit of a shame – I thought he had great potential to help revitalize the moribund action hero role. Sharif made a rare but welcome appearance in the film – it’s a crime that Hollywood never really utilized this marvelous and charismatic actor more often after the 60s.

The 13th Warrior is a throwback film in many ways. It honors virtues that moviegoers since the antihero days of the 1970s have tended to disdain. We look for our heroes to be flawed so we can relate to them, rather than role models who inspire us to be something better. Ahmed is the kind of hero worth aspiring to – not to mention a rare portrayal of an Arabic character that is positive and strong. Now that’s something I’m all for.

WHY RENT THIS: Throwback adventure film. Nice sets and costumes. Omar Sharif.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat muddled in places. Sluggish and slow-paced.

FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of battle scene carnage, and a few disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: During test screenings of the film, the scores were so low that the film was deemed unwatchable; Crichton took over directing reshoots which nearly doubled the budget and delayed the movie by more than a year.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $61.7M on a $160M production budget.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Planes

The Jackal


The Jackal

Anyone think Bruce Willis is overcompensating just a bit?

(1997) Suspense (Universal) Richard Gere, Bruce Willis, Sidney Poitier, Diane Venora, Mathilda May, J.K. Simmons, Richard Lineback, John Cunningham, Jack Black, Tess Harper, Sophie Okonedo, Daniel Dae Kim, Leslie Phillips, Stephen Spinella, Larry King. Directed by Michael Caton-Jones

 

The old saying goes that it takes a thief to catch a thief, which to my mind is utter claptrap. Plenty of thieves have been caught by people who aren’t thieves. However, if you’re going to follow that logic, then it follows that it takes an assassin to catch an assassin.

A raid on a Russian disco by the FBI and Russian military cops ends up with the brother of a high up figure in the Russian underworld getting shot. He blames the FBI for his brother’s demise and enlists the services of the most notorious assassin – only known as the Jackal (Willis) – who accepts a payment of $70 million to off the director of the FBI.

Deputy director Carter Preston (Poitier) gets wind of this and is presented with quite the dilemma; nobody knows what the Jackal looks like which is quite handy if you’re an assassin. Actually, that isn’t quite true – there is the former terrorist for the IRA named Declan Mulqueen (Gere) who knows what he looks like. And, if he is willing to help Preston and Major Valentina Koslova (Venora) track down the Jackal, well, the feds would be grateful. At least he’ll be able to get out of prison and see his former girlfriend, a Basque terrorist named Isabella Zanconia (May) who is now married to another man and living in Northern Virginia, who also knows all about the Jackal. For somebody whom law enforcement agencies have so little information on, these ex-terrorists sure have the goods on him.

Even with Mulqueen’s help, the Jackal leads them on a merry chase around the globe. He’s building a big bad remote control gun with which he can take out his target without actually being on the site; poor Jack Black (in an early role) plays a rawkin Canadian gunsmith who asks one annoying question too many and gets perforated by his own creation. That sucks rocks, dude.

Things get far more personal between Mulqueen and the Jackal and it turns into a kind of mano a mano cat and mouse game between the two. Still, how do you stop him when you don’t even have the target right?

This was based loosely on the 1973 thriller Day of the Jackal which in turn was based on a novel of the same name by Frederick Forsythe which was based on a real life plot to assassinate President Charles de Gaulle of France. That movie is considered one of the classic thrillers of its day and still holds up well nearly 40 years later.

I don’t know that this one will hold up as well in 2037. It has been utterly Americanized and comes off with the Jackal as kind of a cut-rate anti-Bond, with all sorts of gadgets and disguises – Willis has a goodly share of wigs, hairpieces and fake moustaches which must have been fun for him, and he has a different personality with each look from a frumpy Canadian to a suave gay man to a no-nonsense cop. Willis makes a pretty credible bad guy.

Gere’s performance is pretty good. Although his Irish brogue is inconsistent, he has the charisma to make what is essentially an IRA terrorist a sympathetic character although they backpedal and make the good guy terrorists in the movie mostly non-lethal who were more freedom fighters than terrorists. I wonder how sympathetic Gere would have been if we found out that Declan Mulqueen had taken part in a school bus bombing, something that the IRA actually did. Still, he is in full-on movie star mode here and carries the movie pretty well, although Poitier who was undergoing a career renaissance when the film was made, is reliable and gracious enough not to steal the movie out from under his nose which he was fully capable of doing.

The plot often takes ludicrous twists and turns and requires some pretty severe leaps of faith as logic often fails here. There is also a kind of Eurotrash undertone particularly in the soundtrack and some of the scenes that have Willis posturing a little overly much. The ending is a bit of a groaner too. However as empty-headed action thrillers go, this is one that I still view from time to time with enormous affection. However for real thrills I would suggest you see the 1973 version first.

WHY RENT THIS: Poitier is as always terrific. Some terrific action scenes. Willis is excellent as the villain.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Gere’s accent is unconvincing. Takes itself too seriously. Too much Eurotrash. Poor ending.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a good deal of violence and strong language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fred Zinnemann, the director of the original Day of the Jackal reportedly asked that the title of the remake be changed shortly before he passed away because he felt the original stood the test of time and was a completely different film from the newer one, which should warrant a different title.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: While the DVD is sorely lacking in features, the Blu-Ray has a bunch including an unusually informative commentary track and a nice featurette comparing the 1997 version with the original 1973 film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $159.3M on a $60M production budget; this was profitable (more than).

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Day of the Jackal

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Barry Munday