First, the bad news: "The 13th Warrior" is a dud -- a dull, dark, beautifully photographed but nonsensical sword-and-sorcery wannabe epic that will appeal only to those fantasy fans so overjoyed by the genre's momentary return to theaters that they'll take what they can get. Antonio Banderas followers, too, likely will want to check out the Hispanic sex symbol's portrayal of an Arabian hero. He's buff, pious and sensitive, too.
And the good news? Sheer curiosity about the arrival of this long-delayed film from John McTiernan (The Thomas Crown Affair, "Die Hard," "The Hunt for Red October") may help attract audiences. The buzz has been awful, but the gossip has been A-grade stuff: McTiernan, working from an adaptation of "Eaters of the Dead," a Michael Crichton novel, oversaw a $60 million budget that got out of control to the tune of an additional $40 million. Crichton, also a co-producer, assumed directing duties. Awful test screenings and costly reshoots pushed the release back by a year.
All that agonizing didn't make much difference. "The 13th Warrior," despite the filmmakers' best efforts, is most memorable for its relentless displays of graphic, gratuitous carnage, with more heads sliced off, bodies hacked and chests pierced with arrows than anything in recent memory. Despite ambitions of grandiosity, the plot eventually thins out to Blair Witch size: They're evil, and they only come out at night.
It's northern Europe, circa 922. And they, in this case, are a horde of merciless evildoers, perhaps even demons, who literally chew to pieces any living thing that crosses their path. These creatures, apparently half-bear and half-human, might be stopped, or at least slowed down by the brave exploits of a group of stouthearted, rowdy Norsemen led by Buliwyf (Vladimir Kulich). These fighters, marked by Allman Brothers haircuts and beards, as well as a way with insanely heavy swords, include Herger the Joyous (Dennis Storhoi), Helfdane the Large (Clive Russell) and Roneth the Horseman (Neil Maffin).
Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan (Banderas), banished from his native Baghdad for making googly-eyes with the wife of a powerful ruler, meets and mingles with the Norsemen while traveling across Central Asia. Before he has a chance to decline their offer, he's recruited into an elite corps, a baker's dozen of worthies challenged to triumph over the so-called "Eaters of the Dead."
Much is made about the cultural clash between Fahdlan and his pals/captors. He's neat. The boys are pigs. He's discreet about his sexual affairs. They're braggarts. He prays to Allah. They invoke the names of multiple deities, when not busy pillaging. He's a reluctant warrior. They're gung-ho to a fault. What's really funny is how "The 13th Warrior" falls flat on its face. Thud.