A film review by Craig J. Koban
2007, R, 99 mins.
Ghost: Karl Urban / Pathfinder: Russell Means / Gunnar: Clancy Brown / Starfire: Moon Bloodgood
Directed by Marcas Nispel / Written by Laeta Kalogridis, based on the screenplay for Veiviseren by Nils Gaup
Very rarely has an action/adventure film bored me as senselessly as PATHFINDER did.
I am not sure what is the film’s most negligible flaw: The fact that it has monotonous and ridiculously repetitive action sequences that would not be held captive by most mindless 1980’s action films or that it has absolutely nothing interesting or remarkable to say about the first visitors to the Native tribes of America, predating Columbus by 600 years. Let’s just say that the film is very appropriately titled; it inspired in me a yearning to search for the closest route to ensure my exit from the theatre in the most expeditious manner possible.
This film’s sensibilities (and aesthetic choices, for that matter) are all over the map. PATHFINDER is a mess. I am not sure what it really wants to be. At certain face value, its appears that it wants to appropriate some of the elements of such historically realistic films like – for example – Mel Gibson’s APOCALYPTO crossed with the adrenaline-charged, sword-swinging, teeth-grinding bloodbaths of CONAN THE BARBARIAN. Then there are elements of more generic and contemporary action films thrown in for good measure, and by those I mean ham-infested and groan inducing dialogue (like, “I’m not gonna leave you” and “Go on without me”), silly and annoying clichés, and chaotic and convoluted action set pieces.
Gibson’s film – also about Native American tribes of centuries past – had an astounding level of verisimilitude and authenticity that worked primarily as an out of body experience. APOCALYPTO is like a National Geographic documentary; PATHFINDER is like reading a Classic Illustrated comic book about history, minus the cadence and flow. Hell, the film's battle scenes alone lack the spirit and zeal of the CONAN franchise. PATHFINDER is just depressing.
It’s bathed in such a wash of sepia and grey toned washes and murky and mind-numbingly dark cinematography that it's barely acceptable to see what in the world is going on half the time in the action scenes. The director - Marcus Nispel, a music video vet – also has an inane predilection to filming most of the would-be pulse-pounding battles with hemorrhage-inducing editing and horrendous amounts of slow motion. As a result, instead of being roused and entrenched in all of the bloodshed, you just grow tired and bored with it. Most witless and infantile 80’s action extravaganzas had the decency to not inspire slumber. In this way, PATHFINDER kind of commits an inexcusable cinematic sin: It’s a rare action film that wants us to crave for less action. The first few scenes are…well…tolerable, but as the film bares down on you with repetition, you simply start to clue out.
Perhaps even worse is the fact that the villains are faceless and colorless drones (in this film’s case, Vikings) and the main hero is such a monosyllabic and disenchanting dullard that you just kind of lose any semblance of resonation with anyone or anything in the film. Karl Urban, who plays the hero, looks like a comic book character come to life, but he has zero charisma, zero personality, and zero spunk. He’s essentially a rugged and handsome actor that is reduced to performing in perfunctory fight montages and spit out dialogue that will roll many eyes. My single favourite exchange occurs late in the film when one character tells him, “There are always two wolves in a man: love and hate,” to which he responds, “How will I know which one will win in battle?” She tells him, “The one that you feed the most.”
The film begins – as the overtly simplistic title cards tell us – six centuries before good ol’ Chris Columbus set foot on any American soil. Most adept students of history would point out that it was the Vikings that first set sail and landed in the “New World”. Judging by the lush jungle foliage and gigantic, imposing mountain vistas, PATHFINDER certainly seems to think that the Norseman landed a million miles removed from their actual first settling point: Newfoundland, Canada (trust me – we have tourist sites). Yet, I guess I am willing to accept a little bit of fudging of actual history. Yes, I am willing to also accept that most scholars would point out that Vikings never really wore large animal horns on their battle helmets. However, the stereotypical horned Viking helmets look so dang cool, so – again - I will accept that historical no-no too.
I guess what I will not accept is the film’s story, or lack there of. The film is 5 per cent story and character development and 95 per cent blood-splattering mayhem. In the beginning we see a group of malicious and crazy Vikings slash and burn their way through a Native American village. During this time – 1100 years ago – the Vikings left behind one of their young children, basically because his father did not like the fact that is son would not finish off the killing of a defenseless Native child that he started. Note to Viking kid: If Daddy asks you to behead a child – then honor daddy.
After the boy is “spanked” by daddy (a Norse euphemism for viciously whipped), he is left behind by his brethren for dead. However, the local Natives develop a fondness for the suffering lad. Despite his ethnic differences (he’s white, remember) the Native tribe adopt him as one of their own. Faster than a obligatorical title card that reads “15 YEARS LATER” can come on screen, the film flash forwards 15 years later and the young and reserved lad has grown in the adult warrior, Ghost (Karl Urban), who looks likes like a GQ model version of Gerald Butler’s Rasputin-eyed warrior from 300. Urban, as stated, is a decent and commanding presence on camera when he strikes a pose with a sword or bow and looks mean. His only problem is when he opens his mouth and speaks.
Anyhoo’, Ghost has taken to native life as well as anyone under his circumstances. Just when things could not get any better, those damn, dirty Vikings show up again to re-take the lands that the previous party failed to do. The Norse leader, Gunnar (Clancy Brown) leads his horned-clad army on a barbaric assault on Ghost’s village, slashing, impaling, and beheading anything that moves. Ghost manages to survive (big surprise) and eventually hooks up with two other Native companions – Pathfinder (Russell Means, who means well with his appearance and performance, but deserves a whole lot better) and his daughter (played by Moon Bloodgood) who sure is quite the babe for pre-Columbus colonization. She facilitates two purposes: (a) she will be required to help nurse an injured Ghost back to health when terribly injured and (b) will offer him up unintentionally hilarious words of wisdom and motivation for the hero to continue on with his quest of getting rid of all of that Norse scrum.
I simply don’t know where to begin and where to end with discussing why PATHFINDER simply does not work on any level. The performances are one major problem. Urban and his Native comrades are so thinly and hastily drawn that they emerge more as being convenient plot points than developed characters. This makes it painfully difficult to care about Ghost, the Natives, or anything that happens to them. This makes the 99-minute film feel considerably longer than it is. When the heroes do speak to one another, the enunciation is wooden and dull. There is no passion, emotion, or spark to their exchanges. We care little for them that when scenes of their demise ensue, we shrug it off instead of feeling for them.
And…another thing…I am not sure why the film chose to have all of the Natives speak fluent, modern day English and the Vikings speak in their historical tongue. Huh? Why not have the film at least be an equal opportunist with language and have them all speak their foreign languages? Worked for APOCALYPTO. Well, PATHFINDER ain’t no APOCALYTPO. This weird stylistic choice creates an odd divide in the hero and villains and affects the symmetry of the film. I mean, if you make the Natives talk in anachronistic English, the Vikings should follow suit as well.
And…another thing…there is also no real engine to drive this story forward. Oh, it has a story, albeit minuscule: Vikings invade Natives, kill lots of Natives; Ghost seeks revenge, kills lots of Vikings. The film – like the recent 300 – is filled with wall-to-wall orgies of sadomasochistic violence of the most painful variety, but 300 had style, panache, and a droll sense of dark fun and whimsy to the gore. PATHFINDER’s action is sloppy in execution and even sloppier in the editing department.
Nispel films all of these montages as if he forgot to light the subject matter. Color and light is vacant in the film and its constantly dark and bleached out cinematography is a real turn off. Some shots are kind of hauntingly beautiful, and he gives the Vikings a sense of otherworldly menace and stature, but PATHFINDER seems too much like a cannibalized MTV music video for its own good. The film is so dark, depraved, and desolate from an aesthetic viewpoint that it becomes something emotionally detaching and cold. If anything, this film should be required viewing in film schools for how not to film action scenes. In short, make them coherent, clear, and exciting. PATHFINDER has none of those qualities; it’s just awash in a copious fog of grubby storytelling and even grubbier camera work.
Senseless, flavorless and bland would just be a few of the many descriptors for PATHFINDER, a poor man’s APOCALYPTO and CONAN: THE BARBARIAN if there ever was one. With one-dimensional characters far too frequently reciting banal and corny dialogue, action set pieces that are endlessly dull and carelessly realized, and an overall story arc that has none of the grandeur and allure that it should have had, PATHFINDER simply fails as a historical battle epic. Exasperated by all of its shallowness and lack of color and finesse, I can’t even wholeheartedly recommend the film as a decent, disposable action flick. When you have characters with the personalities of corpses, villains that are robots with swords and armor, and a physical struggle between the two that lack any meaningful dynamic, then why even bother? Certainly, there is an intriguing and fascinating story to tell about the first meetings between the Vikings and the First Nations people well before Columbus sailed the Ocean blue in 1492. PATHFINDER simply isn’t it. Terrance Malick, where are you when we need you?