Max von Sydow
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The Ultimate Warrior (1975)
22nd Jul 05
In Post-Apocalyptic 2012 New York, The Baron enlists the help of tough guy Carson to help protect his peoples' hope for survival against a rival gang.
Review The Ultimate Warrior is one hell of a title. A film with a title like that really needs to live up to expectations and once I realised that it starred Yul Brynner and Max Von Sydow, my expectations were even higher. And then, all of a sudden, the information highway gave me more information that I needed and told me that Robert Clouse was the director. So, now it was apparent that The Ultimate Warrior might just be an average action movie directed by someone who the word ‘average’ could have been invented for.
Clouse’s most noteworthy offering is sure to be the Hollywood Bruce Lee vehicle Enter the Dragon, which has to be also his most successful. Following the worldwide success of Enter the Dragon, he became what one could describe as an unofficial maker of fight films, whether kung fu or not, and unfortunately perhaps didn’t realise that the success of the Bruce Lee film was because of Bruce Lee (or Lalo Schifrin’s stunning score), and not the man behind the camera.
Enter the Dragon is interesting in that you almost don’t even notice how flat the direction is because Lee, or any of his cool co-stars, is always onscreen, demanding our full attention. Clouse however continued down the road of hand-to-hand combat pictures with US-made chop-socky thrillers such as Black Belt Jones (great fun), Game of Death (for which he should NEVER be forgiven), The Big Brawl (ok Jackie Chan film), Gymkata (oh my GOD this is so fucking BAD) and the China O’Brien films (see previous). He also made The Rats, which is reviewed in this Zombie Club. In 1975 though, when he made this post-apocalyptic fight picture with a highly promising title, viewers and critics alike were no doubt disappointed with the results. Right then, now that you know a bit about Bob Clouse, let’s get on with it.
It’s 2012 A.D. Some kind of apocalypse has been (it is not clear what kind exactly though biological plague is hinted at) and the world is hungry. Nothing grows anymore. Deep within desolate, post-apocalyptic New York exist groups of survivors, one led by The Baron (Von Sydow) and the other (the only other one we see anyway) led by a man with red hair called...Carrot (William Smith). The Baron’s people live within the ‘compound’ wherein a genius biohorticulturalist (I just made that term up as it seems to fit - you can call him a scientist if you like) called Cal has developed precious food seeds that are resistant to disease. The Baron is afraid that the larger rival gang will take over his compound and discover their new hope for survival (the seeds) so he enlists the help of Carson (Yul Brynner): a great warrior. Hmmm...
The community in the compound accepts Carson at first, but after Cal is killed by Carrot’s men, the worried Baron entrusts the seeds and his pregnant daughter to Carson’s care who run away to ‘the island’ before the people of the compound revolt and turn on their leader. The villains then pursue Carson and the pregnant Belinda through the NY subway tunnels where the final showdown must take place between a man called Carrot and The Ultimate Warrior. You’ll never guess who wins.
The first 15 minutes of The Ultimate Warrior sees Yul Brynner standing atop a wall outside a downtown library in NY. The streets are deserted, apart from the occasional gang and Yul, standing there with his eyes closed (because that’s what warriors do), wearing no shirt and with his trusty knife in his belt. This is where Max Von Sydow and his men travel to in an effort to persuade him to help them. If Brynner did this nowadays, he’d probably be laughed at, then pelted with eggs because he looks so damned ridiculous. But they don’t taunt him; they want him to help them because he’s like some sort of post-apocalyptic samurai with a tiny penknife.
Ten minutes after being first introduced to Brynner's character, he goes from being a mysterious warrior who doesn’t speak or open his eyes to a tough guy from Detroit who basically stabs a lot of gang thugs with his tiny knife. The fight scenes are few and far between unfortunately, and are over far too quickly. It’s almost like Brynner wanted himself to be portrayed as super-tough, as touchable only by the very best, and in the case of The Ultimate Warrior, this ‘very best’ is called Carrot. Carson and Carrot’s final fight scene is the best in the film and despite only minimal flutters of enthusiasm or excitement in the film’s previous 85 minutes, the final struggle is suprisingly quite (literally) gripping to watch.
Question: How DID they persuade Max Von Sydow that this would be good for his career?! Alas, I have no answer. An actor of substantial calibre with an impressively distinguished career behind him should have had more sense than to board this 1970’s sci-fi bandwagon carriage. He’s excellent as The Baron. Of course he is. He’s Max Von Sydow - an actor clearly capable of making up for all the other Z-listers involved in this dull production. A few of the actors are recognisable from other Clouse films, such as Mel Novak (‘Stick’ in Game of Death) and Pat E. Johnson (the hood from the start of Enter the Dragon who unwisely confronts John Saxon with the immortal line, “It’s the dough, Roper, or we gotta break somethin’”) among others.
The film's opening shots are promising enough; bleak, deserted cityscapes a la 28 Days Later but unfortunately tends to go down a gradual hill of mediocrity, peppered with only brief moments of excitement and stabs at character development. The character of the green-fingered Cal is probably the best character in the film, but it’s almost as if nobody realised this. I felt sad when he was killed, so there was obviously some degree of characterisation at work for me to invest in him emotionally. Most other characters are throwaway material, simply there to move the weak, relatively unstructured story along.
This film came out in the 1970’s when post-apocalyptic pictures were quite popular (The Omega Man, A Boy and His Dog) and before John Carpenter and George Miller made them very popular but generally fails to generate much in way of excitement, violence, comedy, or anything else we’d like to see. You’ll probably walk away from it thinking about just how silly Yul Brynner looks at the beginning, and how the promise of such a grand title was so deceiving.
This film isn't great, but it's ok for a post-apocaliptic yarn and maybe has just enough decent scenes to make it worth seeing once. Von Sydow is great as always while the slightly out-of-shape Brynner tends to unintentionally amuse with his posing, little baby knife and awkward-looking hand-to-hand combat. I’d take Chuck Norris any day. At least he’d probably give us some kung fu. And he's got a nice beard.
“Billy, go get Carrot.”
Versions The Barony (International: English title) The Last Warrior