Reel Opinions

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Last Legion

Compared to grandiose digital epics like 300, The Last Legion seems downright small and quaint. There's nothing wrong with that in theory, and in a way, its simplicity is somewhat charming. All the same, I had a hard time getting enthralled with the story it tried to tell. A lot of this most likely has to do with the past works of director Doug Lefler, who has worked mainly with television. A story like this needs to be big and grand, but Lefler still seems to be shooting for the small screen. While not unwatchable, The Last Legion nonetheless disappoints.

The latest descendant of the Caesar bloodline, a young boy by the name of Romulus (Thomas Sangster from Nanny McPhee), has just taken the throne as Rome's Emperor. Not long after he accepts the title, Rome is attacked and overthrown by an army of invading forces. After watching his parents slain in battle, Romulus is captured along with his personal teacher Ambrosinus (Ben Kingsley), and sent to an island prison. It doesn't take long for the Captain of the Roman Guard, Aurelius (Colin Firth), and his few surviving soldiers from the initial raid to rescue the two with the help of a female warrior named Mira (Aishwarya Rai). Now in the possession of a powerful sword that belonged to one of his ancestors discovered deep underneath the prison, the young Emperor Romulus and his protectors must make a perilous journey to Britain, where the last remaining soldiers who still support Rome are located. However, not only do his former captors follow him, but the brave band discover that the entire land is under the rule of a tyrannical man who is seeking both the legendary sword and Ambrosinus.

Based loosely on the novel by Valerio Massimo Manfredi, The Last Legion tries to tie the legend of King Arthur with Roman history in detailing how the famed sword Excalibur was forged, and found its way into the hands of the future King. The movie is pretty loose with its historical accuracy, and the decision to cast all the Roman characters with British actors is a bit odd to say the least, but I can live with all that if the movie is entertaining. While not a complete success, the movie does have a certain sense of innocence to it. The filmmakers were trying to create an old fashioned adventure yarn in the tradition of the great 50s and 60s B-movie epics that used to be shown on weekend afternoons when I was growing up. You constantly see potential all around. There's a great cast who may not be giving their best performance of their careers, but at least are making an effort and don't seem to be sleepwalking through their roles. The story has some interesting ideas, as well, particularly during the last moments of the film when they tie everything into the Arthur legend. For all of the effort and the feelings of nostalgia this film brought forth, the one thing it could not truly do is make me care about the characters or what was going on up on the screen. This is where The Last Legion begins to falter despite its very good intentions.

There are some battle sequences and vast landscape shots that are supposed to invoke feelings in the audience of past adventure epics such as The Lord of the Rings trilogy. And yet, the movie keeps on contradicting itself with its overall small and minor tone that it keeps throughout. The battles are instantly forgettable, and though competently filmed, seem to be over in a blink of an eye. The attack and conquering of Rome that happens about 20 minutes into the movie seems to be over in all of five minutes, if even that. We see a lot of swords clanging and bodies falling, but the movie treats it almost as if it doesn't matter. It just wants to move right along, and get to the next scene. This is just the wrong way to do it. If you're going to do a scene detailing the fall of one of the great Empires of its time, you don't just gloss right over it and skip to the aftermath. Not only does this rob us of the spectacle we came to see, but it also cheapens the rest of the film, since the heroes are supposed to be traveling and fighting to protect the young Emperor who saw his parents killed in battle. All of the film's major action sequences seem to suffer the same problem, and don't last long enough to make much of an impression. The only action sequence that the movie does seem to take some decent amount of time depicting (the escape from the island prison) is made somewhat laughable due to the incredible ease with which the heroes discover this fabled legendary sword that has been lost for years, yet the heroes stumble upon in about three minutes, and find the sword lying out in the open.

Unlike most recent historical adventure epics, The Last Legion is fairly short and keeps things well under two hours. This is both a blessing and a curse, as this means the film never drags for too long, but at the same time we also don't get to know the characters as well as we should. The movie moves along with the pace of an action video game, zipping from one battle and major sequence to the next, seldom giving us time for the characters to slow down. The young Emperor Romulus barely has time to mourn over the death of his parents, nor does he seem that troubled by it in the first place, before he is whisked away on an adventure where his situation is seldom ever mentioned again, nor is he ever given more than one line of dialogue at a time. This child is supposed to be the element drives the story, but he often comes across as a prop that the adult actors are dragging along with them, since he never plays much of a role in the story itself other than a walking plot device. The adult lead characters, played by Colin Firth and Ben Kingsley, are equally underdeveloped. Firth plays Aurelius as being somewhat bland and emotionless, which is a shame, since he's supposed to be the romantic lead in this movie as he develops a relationship with the female warrior Mira. (Their relationship seems to come out of nowhere, and is severely underdeveloped.) Ben Kingsley seems to be channeling both Obi-Wan and Gandalf in his performance as the wise old personal teacher of Romulus who has hidden magical abilities. Compared to some of his other recent performances in films like Bloodrayne and Thunderbirds, this is an improvement, but it is still nowhere near the level of what he is capable of.
The best word that I can think of to describe The Last Legion is mediocre. This is a mediocre film through and through, never quite being good while never quite sinking to the depths to be awful. Children in the early double digits might find some enjoyment in this movie, but anyone older has seen it all before and has seen it done much better. Still, in the end, this is not as bad of a movie as one would expect given the fact that the film has been sitting on the studio's shelf for over a year. According to the film's press notes, the filmmakers spent six years working on this script. You'd think with all that effort, we'd have something that's a little bit better than just being average.



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