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Pathfinder (2007,USA)

03/08/2011

Director: Marcus Nispel         Starring: Karl Urban, Clancy Brown, Russell Means, Moon Bloodgood

In case you didn’t already know, the Vikings are known to have made it to North America far in advance of Christopher Columbus. They pitched up on the shores of what is now Canada in around 1000AD after making the trip via longboat from Iceland and then, presumably, did their pillaging reaver act before heading back to whence they came. It’s not a subject that seems to crop up in cinema very often (I can only think of one other film, Nicholas Winding Refn’s existential nightmare Valhalla Rising that touches on the topic) and so Pathfinder represented an opportunity to enjoy a new context for the action adventure film that would help differentiate it from its peers.

The film opens with a Native American woman stumbling upon a desolate Viking longboat that is filled with the bodies of dead Vikings and tribesmen. The only survivor is a young Icelandic boy who is adopted by the tribe (despite their fears that he is some sort of evil spirit) and brought up as one of their own. Fast forward a few years and the boy has grown into a man called Ghost (Urban) and has taken his place among the braves of the tribe. When a fresh horde of Vikings arrives and begins the wholesale slaughter of the natives, starting with Ghost’s tribe, only he and his trusty steel longsword can stand up to the horrific marauders from across the ocean.

Somehow, despite the intriguing setting, the massive potential of two legendary warrior cultures facing off against each and the breathlessly constant stream of action set pieces, the whole thing ends up being rather dull. The initial scene setting is pedestrian and cliched and then, when the Vikings arrive and everything kicks off, the action is pretty much non stop. Nobody thought it would be sensible to take a minute or two now and again to let things settle and the story, such as it is, to breathe. Instead they’ve embarked upon a single minded crusade to distract the audience with endless hacking and slashing, perhaps in the hope that we won’t notice how flimsy the rest of the film is.

This wouldn’t be so bad if the action scenes were any good. Kicking off with a sub-standard Conan rip off as the Vikings massacre the native village (who incidentally don’t seem to put up much of a fight) it segues to a straight-out-of-James-Bond sledge chase (yes, seriously) before turning into Rambo. There might even be a little sprinkling of Apocalypto in there for good measure. My biggest issue with all this is that the handling of these scenes is nowhere near as good as it is in any of the films that have clearly been the inspiration for them. Say it out loud: “Indians versus Vikings”. Sounds exciting doesn’t it? And yet somehow here it isn’t.

Clearly nobody here was cast for their acting ability, except perhaps Russell Means who plays the aging Pathfinder of the tribes (I’m still not quite sure why he has this title and what significance it bears to the plot, such as it is, but then it doesn’t really matter) who seems to know what he’s doing but has been left little to work with. Karl Urban has clearly been cast for looks above all else (although he doesn’t look particulalry Icelandic if you ask me) and as for the Vikings, well, spending the entire film as they do shrouded in darkness, wearing ridiculously over designed armour and covered in beards they might as well be puppets as people, a fact that brings me onto my main gripe with the film.

The Vikings are rubbish. Let’s leave the historical accuracy argument to one side for a moment and assume that the film is intended as a sort of fantasy version of history. Even considering that fact, the Icelanders that turn up to pointlessly slaughter the natives (they seem to gain literally nothing from the experience other than to satisfy a self serving bloodlust) are absurd caricatures of those historic warriors, bearing more of a resemblance to Peter Jackson’s orcs than ferocious Norsemen. The central “conflict” for Ghost is that he is between two cultures, neither a Native American or a Viking and struggling to reconcile this fact but when being a Viking means you have to be an amoral, mindless killing machine that murders people for the sake (not even for the fun) of it then there’s not much to struggle against really.

Add to this the conceit that the natives are helpless against them because their wooden and stone weapons cannot defend against the Viking steel or indeed penetrate their “special skin that stone arrows cannot pierce” and I was left bewildered. There’s more to combat than a game of scissors, paper, stone and by forgetting this they have reduced a potentially interesting conflict to a crap episode of fantasy match up, top trumps tv show, Deadliest Warrior. Just without the cool weapons tests and a doctor to explain just how dead you would be if a Viking cut off your legs. Compare this to the reception the Vikings receive in Valhalla Rising if you want to see how things might really have been, although Refn’s cunning deployment of historical accuracy in that film might have balanced the odds a little.

Apparently Pathfinder is based on a 1987 Norwegian film which sounds much more watchable, the action taking place in Lapland and from what I understand being much less over the top. Why they felt the need to so completely unravel it into this ungodly mess is a little bit beyond me. Dark, muddy and incoherent it tries to hide its shortcomings with the bluff and bluster of battle scenes. It might have gotten away with it too had they been any good. It might have the makings of a half decent drinking game if you could be bothered paying it enough attention to devise one but otherwise I would steer well clear.

 

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