Because the post-apocalyptic community in Robert Clouse's film is led by a man known as "The Baron" (Max von Sydow), there may be a temptation to see The Ultimate Warrior as a distant precursor to the current TV series Into the Badlands, in which parts of the onetime U.S. are divided among a group of Barons. That would make Carson (Yul Brynner) the original Clipper, but in Clouse's picture, which he wrote as well as directed, warriors like Carson are mercenaries rather than feudal vassals. He appears in a ruined city -- civilization has collapsed, a la No Blade of Grass, due to a plant-killing plague, among other things -- and makes himself conspicuous, standing shirtless on a prominent ledge, to declare his availability. Ultimately Carson is just passing through on his way to relatives on an island off the Carolina coast, but the idea of a distant safe haven with a more natural landscape appeals to the Baron, whose prime asset is the ultimate gardener (Richard Kelton), to whom the little barony owes a precious crop of fresh veggies. That crop is hopelessly vulnerable to the depredations of such human vermin as Carrot (William Smith) and his gang; hence the appeal of an ultimate warrior, not only to safeguard the crop and its gardener, but possibly as an escort for a breakout to that island, where the gardener could raise larger crops. The situation, from the security of the garden to the Baron's grip on his people, proves unsustainable, forcing Carson to make his break with nothing but a bag of seeds, a pregnant woman and his own very special skills.
Clouse directed the non-combat action of Enter the Dragon and thus, following Bruce Lee's death, was typed as a martial-arts expert in his own right. He was hired to try to put over martial-arts talent, from Dragon co-star Jim Kelly (Black Belt Jones) to Jackie Chan (The Big Brawl) to Kurt Thomas (the infamous Gymkata) to Cynthia Rothrock (China O'Brien). As a martial-arts director, Clouse presumably was only as good as his talent, and 55 year old Yul Brynner could only be an ultimate warrior in a relative, very specific context. Fighting skills have deteriorated with every other aspect of civilization by Carson's time, so that being able to sidestep and stab or slash accurately with a fairly modest knife is enough to establish his ultimacy. You might have seen William Smith mentioned as his ultimate antagonist and thought, "Good lord, Smith should kill Brynner with his bare hands," but Carrot turns out to be the sort of villain who leads from behind until he's the last man left standing. At that point he pulls out a ball and chain and puts up something of a fight before falling into a hole. Brynner, apparently coasting on a sex appeal that had been mysteriously re-established by his robotic turn in Westworld, is in reasonable shape for a man his age, but by the frightening standard set that decade for his age group by Charles Bronson in Chato's Land you could well doubt whether Carson is any more ultimate in any physical situation than Jim Hellwig, the war-painted inheritor of his title, was during the late 1980s.
Fortunately for all involved, The Ultimate Warrior is less a martial-arts picture -- though I wondered whether it began with an idea Clouse had for Bruce Lee -- than a sincere post-apocalyptic dystopia. Perhaps necessarily, it is less interested in choreographed sensationalism than with conveying a truly depleted society near the end of its rope. It's a demoralizing picture, perhaps especially for anyone going in expecting epic action, and that proves to be a good thing, even if I'm reluctant to call this a good movie. A sense of Seventies-ish exhaustion hangs over all the proceedings, including the tired performances of Brynner and von Sydow, who actually play off each other quite well, with Brynner refreshingly relaxed in their dialogue scenes. Von Sydow, early in a run of odd career choices, is persuasive as someone who's a good leader in theory but not really in practice, benevolent and selfish at the same time, someone who could help save civilization but not secure it. Smith, meanwhile, is ironically effective as a largely inactive villain, since his inactivity leaves you questioning Carrot's courage or competence until he finally has to fight it out with Carson. Overall, compared with what would come just a few years later, The Ultimate Warrior seems calculated not to romanticize the fall of civilization by making it primarily a liberation of violent impulses. Even when it's not really satisfactory as a genre picture, there's still something decent about it, even if only in a passive, negative sense, that's worth saluting.