The Last Legion
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The Last Legion

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One of the most enduring variations of the action-adventure flick is the sword and sandals movie. From ‘Spartacus’ to ‘Ben-Hur’ these films have always managed to make audiences happy. There is just something about watching epic battles with swords clashing against shields as huge armies battle. The downside that has emerged from this popularity is the genre has become extremely riddled with clichés stories and formulaic action sequences. Part of this is the advent of very good and expensive computer created special effects. It used to be producers would need a sizable budget to get one of these films to the theaters. Now a much smaller group of people can produce a workable film. Of course this means you don’t have to worry about an extra showing up in costume but sporting a wristwatch but there is something about watching real actors in a film like this. The latest flick by producer extraordinaire Dino De Laurentiis, as well as his two daughters Martha and Raffaella, is ‘The Last Legion’. Like so many S&S films of late there is so much potential that is just not tapped properly. This is a case where the cast and crew give it their best shot but there is no synergy present. There are plenty of good individual efforts here but none of them are able to mess properly.

First of all there is the script. It seems that it was put together by committee. Perhaps they were walking in the hall, one writer with a script about Roman History, another with one concerning King Arthur legends. They bump into each other and the pages are mixed together. Unlike the combination of chocolate and peanut butter this resulting mixture just didn’t have appeal. Apparently it took about six years to come up with a script. In itself this is usually not a good sign. While most of the scenes do seem to use practical sets instead of CGI the feel is artificial. In the shots that did depend on CGI perhaps a software upgrade would have helped. Those effects were not up to contemporary standards. The film attempts to be a family friendly one by leaving out the copious quantities of blood and gore most action films have. There is also no nudity which is actually refreshing here. It is disconcerting when between battles the main hero just happens to stumble across a beautiful woman and the battle weary warrior is stirred to a different form of action. This film does avoid these traps but in the process the story line is completely lost. You shouldn’t expect historical accuracy in a film like this so it can be forgiven that times, places, legends and battlefield accoutrements are inaccurate.

It is the 5th century and the once grand and powerful Roman Empire is in the throws of collapse. The Goths are at the borders, trained by the Romans and intent on destroying their former masters. The narrator of the film is Ambrosinus (Ben Kingsley), British born citizen of Roman. He tells of a legend concerning the sword of Julius Caesar, hidden long ago to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands. He is also the tutor of Romulus (Thomas Sangster), who is about to be crowned Emperor. His father Orestes (Iain Glen) had lead the nation but as a general not a crowed emperor. Just prior to the imperial coronation the leader of the Goths, Odoacer (Peter Mullan) demands a sizable plot of land be given to his people in recognition of the help they have provided the Roman Empire. The request is refused making for a determined enemy. In the ensuing raid and battle Romulus’ parents are killed and he is exiled by Odoacer who now commands Rome. He winds up in Capri in a villa constructed by Tiberius. There he and his teacher begin a search for the fabled sword. He finds a clue that confirms that he who has the sword is destined to rule. Eventually Romulus and Ambrosinus are rescued by men loyal to his father lead by Aurelius (Colin Firth). They meet with an ambassador from the Eastern Empire, Mira (Aishwarya Rai) who is supposed to provide safe passage to the east. This plan is deterred when it turns out that his allies have sided with the Goths. With no where else to go they head off for Briton. There it is hoped that the famed 9th Legion remains and is still loyal to the empire. One the way more is learned about the sword such as it was forged from a rock that fell to the earth was tempered with the blood of a lion and bares scared pagan symbols of power. The get the sword a battle ensues and revolved by the massive deaths Romulus tossed the sword away where it is embedded in a rock. Later a wizard leads a boy named Arthur to the sword in the stone.

I know a lot of people you were looking forward to this film since it was based on the successful novel by Valerio Massimo Manfredi. While it is rarely a wining bet to expect a film based on a novel to remain true to the pages this one take a stab at it but falls down in the production. An action film typically has a streamlined plot for good reason. Most of the audience is there to see action not worry about more than a vestige of a story line. While there are notable exceptions the rule of thumb is keep it simple; keep it moving. This flick has a lot going on and tries to touch base with too many genres. The chase film where the hero has to find some sacred object is popular now so throw that in. People love battles so have a few of them. You always need a little touch of romance so make sure there is at least one beautiful woman. If this film concentrated on any one of these themes it would have had a better chance.

The director, Doug Lefler is one you most likely have come across before. He has directed some of the best series on television including Babylon 5, American Gothic and JAG. He has a firm foundation is action myth telling with episodes of both Hercules and Xena. It is just that is takes a different perspective to direct an hour long episode than it does to helm a feature length film. He is an excellent director and has this out of the way. I look forward to his next movie. The actors here are extremely good but every so often even the best actors are in something that doesn’t showcase their talent. After all Robert De Niro was in Bullwinkle and Rocky. Colin Firth is incredible in a nice romantic comedy but seems to drift here. I applaud his trying different roles but some experiments don’t work out.

The DVD is presented by the great combination of the Weinstein Group and Genius Pictures. Not all of their releases are big successful film. To their credit they are willing to give less renowned films a chance on DVD. This is the case here. The anamorphic video is excellent and the Dolby 5.1 audio robust. There are several interesting extras typical of this distributor. The director’s commentary is very good as Lefler goes through the process that he used. There are also deleted scenes with optional commentary. One featurette looks at the choreography required for the battle scenes. Another is a general behind the scenes look at production. This is a reasonable popcorn flick for the family suited for those snow days ahead.

Posted 12/16/07

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