Presented in what feels like eleven different shades of gray, Marcus Nispel's Pathfinder is a character study with no character, an adventure movie with very little adventure, and an action flick with alarmingly infrequent action scenes. Other than that, the thing's a bona-fide hoot for 96 straight minutes. Shallow, callow and mindless to a fault, the movie makes Zack Snyder's 300 feel like a model of restraint and cohesion. Keep in mind that I'm a guy who's always had a soft spot for big, dumb, period-piece action flicks -- but Pathfinder is just way too generic, way too obvious and way too stone-faced serious to warrant any enthusiasm.
Worst of all is the fact that Pathfinder contains just enough quality material to make you angry there's not more of it. But basically it's just another story about a noble warrior who wreaks holy mayhem after his village is ransacked by brutal villains. If you're a big fan of the "angry hero / ransacked village / revenge duly wreaked" movies, then you might find Pathfinder to be passable diversion on a rainy Saturday afternoon -- but the flick's about as funny by accident as it is grungy on purpose. While some of the film is visually captivating and (intermittently) exciting, it suffers mightily because of clumsy direction, over-caffeinated editing, and an overall pace that could be best described as ... convulsive.
Karl Urban stars as a Viking guy who was rescued as a boy and raised by a kind-hearted tribe of Native Americans. But once the kid's all grown up, those slovenly Vikings decide to invade anew, which means you can expect all sorts of painful conflicts -- be they internal or external. Nope, actually, Viking/Indian Hero Man actually has no problem slaying his blood-kin in a wide variety of icky ways. (So there's one potential plot thread shot to hell, I guess.) With one innocent village duly slaughtered, those virulent Vikings aim to demolish another one -- and it's up to Viking/Indian Hero Man to save the day.
That's pretty much it, plot-wise, and it also doesn't help that the villainous Vikings are painted in only the most outrageously one-dimensional brush strokes. (I've seen Romero zombies that exhibit more personality than these evil Viking invaders do.) What I found weird was that the Vikings speak Nordic with English subtitles yet the Native Americans speak perfect English. They even say words like "Yeah." But I only notice things like that when I'm bored.
And then it's time for the "name that movie" game. Second-time director Marcus Nispel (after that Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake) and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis bone-pick everything from Braveheart and Cliffhanger to King Arthur and (of course) The 13th Warrior. No genre convention is left unexploited, and I'll spare you the litany examples. Pathfinder is Conan the Barbarian without all the colorful stuff before it turns into a virtual remake of Michael Mann's Last of the Mohicans. It's like a cinematic salad bar! And on top of all that, Pathfinder is actually a remake of a 1987 Norwegian film called Ofelas! Forget the salad bar analogy; Pathfinder is more like a quilt!
The cast seems alternately bored and embarrassed by what they're being put through. Urban, memorable for a small-yet-interesting role in Return of the King, definitely lacks the screen presence and charisma required to anchor an action "epic" all by himself. In the actor's defense, he's not required to do much more than glower, stab and punch -- so I guess his performance is the equal of the screenplay. As the perpetually endangered love interest, Moon Bloodgood delivers similar work: Compelling one moment, silly the next. The rest of the actors run around the flick covered in war paint, metal helmets or buckets of gore, so it's pretty tough to single out any memorable background performances. (I know Clancy Brown was in the movie somewhere, but I can't remember where!)
To be entirely fair, the third act of Pathfinder does manage to cobble together a few compelling scenes -- there's a bit involving a cliff, a rope and a tree that's pretty darn entertaining -- and the movie does actually exhibit half a pulse during the (too little and too late) battle scenes. But there's only so many beheadings, skewerings and CGI blood-geysers you can take before you start wondering "Hey, aren't I supposed to care about one or two of these characters?" Pathfinder is a one-note slog through some painfully familiar territory, and the only new thing it adds to the Historical Action Epic sub-genre is a unique sense of self-important silliness.