The Hollywood B-movie factory is truly in dire straits if it can’t make something entertaining out of Pathfinder. The film is the latest to carry on the tradition of seeking out ancient cultures and building ultraviolent thrillers around them. Pathfinder gets creative (or greedy) and chooses two: barbaric Vikings (in this case a young one) and Native Americans (who adopt the boy). The boy grows up into Karl Urban and confronts his past when the Vikings return for a fresh round of pillaging.

The unrated DVD release of Pathfinder includes a sleepy commentary from director Marcus Nispel (theatrical advertisements included the subtitle The Legend of the Ghost Warrior, absent from earlier trailers and now the DVD ads, its presence presumably depending on the most up-to-date market research about whether moviegoers prefer onerous Pirates of the Caribbean-style titling). Nispel notes at the outset that he wanted to make a gladiator picture only to be outgunned by Gladiator, and that he later tried to sell studios on a pirate adventure before Disney’s franchise hit it big. He mentions these pitfalls in big-budget filmmaking with good humor, but it’s difficult not to view his work as an also-ran epic.

Indeed, Nispel’s film is so slow-moving that it blows its one lead — it was actually completed before the battle-heavy spectacle of 300 and Apocalypto, but still manages to look and sound like a leaden knockoff. Its delayed release (which put it out after those films) feels more fitting than unfair. Nispel claims an interest in capturing this time period, but his enthusiasm barely registers on the commentary, let alone the film itself. Elsewhere on the DVD, several deleted scenes provide additional torpor.

Another, less dull DVD feature, “Clancy Brown: Cult Hero”. profiles character actor Brown. Viewers probably won’t know him by name, but may recognize him once the feature shows him out of Viking garb: he’s played bit-to-supporting parts in movies like Starship Troopers and The Shawshank Redemption; guest-starred in TV shows like Lost, The Riches, and ER; and has a lucrative side career doing voiceover in action / fantasy cartoons. In Pathfinder he plays the fearsome but not particularly distinctive bad guy Gunnar, and the “Cult Hero” feature sheds a spotlight on his intensity in this rare semi-leading part.

The crew’s admiration of Brown’s dedication and fierce physicality is more interesting than his actual character, which, despite the imposing figure he cuts, is really just an extension of Brown’s voiceover work. The feature, in fact, made me want to see a whole documentary on character actors rather than another epic-warrior that disguises them in costumes and guts.

Guts are a Nispel speciality; he directed the middling 2003 Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, which now looks positively visionary in comparison. It’s not the dopiness of Pathfinder that sinks the film, though; it’s the tedious middle ground it occupies. Though the special blood effects (presumably augmented by additional digital buckets for this unrated edition) look a bit like those in 300, it doesn’t have that film’s fearless leaps over the top, nor can it boast Apocalypto‘s bizarre, fascinating mix of naturalism and auteurist nuttiness.

Of course, a seriously good Viking movie would be fine, too; imagine a Last of the Mohicans set even earlier. But genuine curiosity about these cultures is clearly saved for claims of research on the commentary track and behind-the-scenes footage; the best Pathfinder can realistically hope for is visceral thrills and/or camp. The closest it comes to the latter is when Nispel’s bluish visuals start to resemble cheesy album covers — use precise DVD freeze-frames to simulate your own ’80s dorm!

That’s the era Pathfinder, despite its sets and costumes, conjures most effectively: not an ancient North America, but a time when this kind of leaden schlock could get a theatrical release if the leading man looked enough like Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s like building a time machine to watch Sunday-afternoon cable in 1987.

RATING 2 / 10