The most unexpectedly audacious, exhilarating, and wildly creative adventure thriller I have seen in ages features 10th-century Norse warriors and stars Antonio Banderas as an Arab playboy. The 13th Warrior arrives trailing talk that director John McTiernan — who made this restless beaut before The Thomas Crown Affair — is unhappy with the final cut wrangled by Michael Crichton, upon whose 1976 novel Eaters of the Dead it’s based. Yet this richly blood- and mud-splattered film prowls and leaps with such unfettered, unself-consciously propulsive energy and style that it’s hard to imagine just what McTiernan objects to except, perhaps, that anyone is left standing after the last glorious battle sequence.
Banderas plays Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan, a refined fellow banished from Baghdad because he looked funny at the wife of an important nobleman. Wandering abroad with his mentor (Omar Sharif), he meets a boatload of blond, blocky, uncultured Norsemen — played predominantly by European actors unknown to Americans — who enlist him in the battle against terrifying enemy troops so murderous, they eat their victims. (A soothsayer encourages the Men from the North to take a 13th warrior who isn’t one of them.)
That’s it for exposition. The power of The 13th Warrior lies in the almost pointillistic, nearly word-free way in which McTiernan paints each man’s personality and brings the band together, all the while conveying the horrors of combat that haven’t changed much since the old days when fantastical ursine hordes spooked the populace. Once Ahmed sets off, nervously, with his new colleagues, there’s not a moment when the camera isn’t swinging, slicing, and revealing glimpses of visually mesmerizing mysteries, and paring each character to its dramatic essentials. (In the company of Scandinavians, Banderas’ liquid intensity has been smelted to its purest state.) That this cut, despite rumored directorial objections, conveys heroism, brutality, and the indelible mark of superior filmmaking leaves open the question: What would The 13th Warrior have been had McTiernan won the war?