Wednesday, May 27, 2015

(Not) Love Actually: The 13th Warrior

Three of my closest friends growing up introduced me to The 13th Warrior, an action-horror mini-epic loosely based on the old story of Beowulf and Grendel. One was into the mystical and supernatural aspects, one into the viking warrior characters and one just liked to quote it out of nowhere. "Lo there do I see my father..." Only years later would I discover that the film was considered a bomb but has amassed a cult following around the world. Based on the novel by Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park) and directed by John McTiernan (Predator, Die Hard) with a script by Terminator 2 co-writer William Wisher and Black Rain's Warren Lewis, you'd think The 13th Warrior would be better remembered. In an age before the internet tore things apart prior to their release, The 13th Warrior suffered a similar fate of bad press, increasing budget woes, creative disputes and ultimate withdrawal of studio support.

We meet Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan (Antonio Banderas), an outcast academic and poet type turned ambassador as he and his mentor/translator Melchisidek (Omar Sharif) run into some Northmen at a shipping village. Word comes in that a nearby village has been besieged by a murderous, supernatural force and the Vikings enlist themselves to help. An old blind lady with a bag of bones claims that 13 warriors must go but one of them is not to be a Northman. Ibn is thrown into the crusade as they travel to the kingdom and meet the monsters of the mist and their "mother". Nordic shenanigans, Antonio Banderas being the little guy, wine made from honey aka mead, communal face washing/mouth rinsing/nose blowing bowls, feeble words like an old woman's, a mullet, boiled cow urine, sword and ax fighting, lots of beheading and bear worshiping baddies awesomeness ensues. Besides some crappy 90's CGI, 13th Warrior makes terrific use of it's British Columbia settings near rivers, in the woods and rain soaked villages. There's also an elaborate cave sequence complete with waterfall and diving escape. 

The men on a mission feel is old news to director McTiernan who gave us one of the best examples post The Magnificent Seven or The Dirty Dozen with 1987's Predator. While the 13 members aren't given a ton of development, you do get to know stoic and strong leader Buliwyf (sounds like Bull-vie) played by Vladimir Kulich and small funny guy Herger (Dennis Sorhoi) who is basically like Ibn's keeper and calls him "little brother". What's great about this movie is the warrior camaraderie mixed with a "fish out of water" story and action blended with light horror. You get cannibals in bear outfits, severed limbs, huge battles on ground and horseback, a descent into a creepy cave and a showdown with a poison fang handling witch along with sword, shield and spear action. It's not often you see a swords and sails flick and all of our guys are armored up in not too extravagant gear with an archer, ax-man, hatchet guy and of course the leader brandishes a big ass broadsword.

So what happened? How did such a promising flick fail to live up to the hype? Antonio Banderas was riding high from The Mask of Zorro, McTiernan had rebounded from the disappointing performance of Last Action Hero with Die Hard: With a Vengeance. Michael Crichton has wrote, produced and directed films like Westworld and Twister while his novels have turned into hits like Jurassic Park. Apparently from the onset, McTiernan and Crichton clashed which wasn't good for McTiernan as Crichton had final cut approval. Initially titled Eaters of the Dead like the book, a 1998 teaser trailer showcases the horror as well as the action. But test screenings were all over the map with positive reviews digging the visuals and adventure while negative ones focused on the leisurely pace and missed opportunities in the battle scenes. Having already spent over 6 months filming, the cast and crew were called back to the studio lot the following year for reshoots. On one end was McTiernan crafting a new ending and on the other was Crichton doing the same. Actor Vladimir Kulich would shoot scenes for each on any given day. While both men told the actor not to discuss what he was doing on each set, Crichton chimed in that it didn't matter what McTiernan was doing as he still had final cut.

Losing about 20 minutes of footage and gaining a new ending that included a final one on one battle for Bulwyf and the recasting of the evil mother; Disney lost interest in the film, McTiernan departed before final editing was completed and the title became The 13th Warrior. Estimated to have cost around $85 million bucks, rumors swirled that the budget had doubled. Graeme Revell's original score was scrapped in favor of a new one by Jerry Goldsmith. The film was not given a premiere and after sitting on the shelf, Disney made a last ditch promotional effort and released the flick on August 27th in 1999. So much time had passed that McTiernan's The Thomas Crown Affair was released four weeks prior. The 13th Warrior would gross $10.2 million on it's way to a tepid $32 million domestic and make about the same overseas. While Omar Sharif would publicly state his dissatisfaction with the film, 13th would find it's audience on DVD in the ensuing years with Zorro and future Casino Royale director Martin Campbell telling Banderas that it was an underrated film that had become a cult. Various websites were devoted to uncovering the lost McTiernan cut but even the original director couldn't promise a mythical masterpiece lying in wait. A 2011 French special edition DVD includes comments from the likes of Banderas, McTiernan, Kulich and co-writer Lewis in a nearly one hour documentary that has yet to make its way to the states.

After Desperado, Evita and The Mask of Zorro made Banderas a household name, subsequent misfires like 13th Warrior, Play It to the Bone, Original Sin and flop Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever would keep him working steadily until voicing Puss In Boots in the hugely successful Shrek series. Director McTiernan would fumble with big budget remake Rollerball and Basic before going to prison for allegedly lying to authorities. Now free, here's hoping he still has some flicks left in the tank. Crichton's film output would cool as adaptation Timeline would flop and he passed away in 2008 (Write In Peace). While it wasn't the big break Vladimir Kulich was hoping for, The 13th Warrior did lead him to a small role in Joe Carnahan's Smokin' Aces and Buliwyf-esque roles in Ironclad and TV's The Vikings. Until the special edition Blu-Ray hits the U.S., keep the mead coming.

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