The Last Legion (2007) / Adventure-Action

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence
Running time: 110 min.

Cast: Colin Firth, Thomas Sangster, Ben Kingsley, Aishwarya Rai, Peter Mullan, Kevin McKidd, John Hannah, Iain Glen
Director: Doug Lefler
Screenplay: Jez Butterworth, Tom Butterworth (based on the novel by Valerio Manfredi)

Review published May 21, 2007

Cheesy enough to make even Chester Cheetah gag, The Last Legion takes historical novelist Valerio Massimo Manfredi's novel and crafts an even more juvenile adventure tale out of it, with about as much adherence to historical accuracy and realism as Stephen Sommers' The Mummy, except that this film lacks the wink-wink sense of humor required to accept such trite shenanigans.  Basically, it's pure hokum, nearly ranking right up there with Eragon in terms of cliché-ridden story developments, cardboard characterizations, snicker-inducing costumes and weapons, and predictable confrontations that have no business being in anything but a straight-forward family adventure. 

The setting of the story is shortly before the decline of the Roman Empire, 470 AD, where a young boy, Romulus (Sangster, Nanny McPhee), is set to inherit the Empire.  He is captured after his parents are slain when the Germanic forces (Goths in this film) led by Odoacer (Mullan, On a Clear Day) sacks Rome and takes the city, as well as the surrounding territories, as his own.  In real life, Romulus' departure out of Rome marked the end of the Empire and he would never be heard from again, but in this mostly fictionalized story, Romulus is seen as being taken under the protection of the legion commander Aurelius (Firth, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason), who escapes with a small faction of his best men, one Eastern woman warrior named Mira (Rai, Bride & Prejudice), and a two-bit magician named Ambrosinus (Kingsley, Lucky Number Slevin), who has acted as Romulus' mentor. 

After Romulus finds a legendary sword with great powers once forged for Julius Caesar, the motley band of Romans flee to the outer rim of the former Roman Empire, Brittania, where they join forces with the ninth legion, the final one to exist near Hadrian's mighty wall.  It is there that they set about making a last stand against the Goth forces for the last remnants of the once-mighty Roman Empire.  

The Last Legion gets caught up trying to be too many different things for different audiences.  It tries to be an epic, and yet it lacks the sweeping magnificence required to be truly breathtaking.  It tries to be an adventure, but we aren't given enough background information about the characters to be enrapt in their quest.  It tries to be an action film, but the fights are rather on the short side, and lack the kind of choreography that might normally be befitting a clash of the world's finest warriors.  It tries to be a romance, and yet nothing ever ventures past mild flirtation.  It tries to be a historical drama, but outside of using a few real-life characters contemporary to the times, most everything they say or do is fictionalized.  Lastly, it tries to be a family-friendly film, yet it is also on the violent side, with every confrontation settled through means of killing, including a particularly troublesome murder near the end that will probably send mixed messages to the more impressionable members of the audience.

While watching The Last Legion I got the impression that some responsible in making the film viewed it as a tongue-in-cheek lark and others thought it an adventure in the most noble of traditions.  Certainly, director Doug Lefler, who cut his teeth directing such irreverent TV adventure shows like "Xena" and "Hercules" deems the material worthy of putting in eccentric characters and swordplay done in a style that tries more for entertainment than realism.  Unfortunately, the script itself doesn't offer much in the way of humorous interplay or bits of comic relief, which makes Lefler's pert treatment completely misguided.  We aren't allowed to take it seriously enough to be truly taken into the story, and yet, we aren't given enough elements to find entertaining for us to forgive the fact that it isn't funny or clever in the slightest.   

Lefler also lacks the ability to treat major developments with the requisite sense of awe required.  Take for instance a scene where Romulus must look for the visage of his great ancestor, Julius Caesar, which is said to be gazing at the mythical sword that has the ability to change the course of the war for the powerful hand that possesses it.  It takes him almost no time to find the spot, and he immediately surmises that the eye pieces on the mosaic of Caesar can be pressed in, revealing a trap door that takes him almost immediately to the statue that has the sword dangling from it.  The treatment of the story should have suggested something akin to finding the Holy Grail, but as presented here, it's just a rudimentary task for the child to perform like any other that gets him to the next step in the adventure. 

The best thing that one can say about The Last Legion is that it does have a capable cast and some very good locale shots and CG-laced backdrops.  Certainly, with just a little sophistication in its story and cleverness in its dialogue, the right elements are there to at least make it an enjoyable, even if historically inaccurate, adventure in the vein of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves or The Man in the Iron Mask.  The script by Jez and Tom Butterworth (Birthday Girl) isn't really aiming for that level, thinking it more of a direct epic adventure, but without an authentic-seeming historical treatment or a set up for an engrossing battle between the forces of good and evil.  The bad guys are bad because they look unbathed or are heavily scarred, not because they do anything much different than the legions of Rome have done for centuries in order to acquire the lands that they possess.

There are many ways in which to tell a tale of adventure, and the story staples vary depending on type, but there is one thing they should all possess in order to be successful: a stirring of the imagination in the audience.  By being predictable in its story structure and treating major developments with a lackadaisical air, The Last Legion offers little but a good looking, capable cast trying their best not to smirk at what they must surely have considered an epic of absurdly small-minded proportions.  The end in particular, which is the first time that Lefler actually tries to wow the audience with some sort of revelation, comes off as a cheesy gimmick in order to tie the events into a larger scheme.  Instead of being blown away, we think to ourselves, "Hmm...that's kinda interesting," and then we shrug and go about our day without bothering with much reflection that the entire film is a preamble to one of the greatest adventure tales ever told in the history of lore.

The Last Legion, the movie, is pretty much on par with the last legion depicted within.  It's a small scale, ill-equipped, and rather desperate conglomeration of talent that hasn't the tools or ingenuity necessary to be truly formidable.

Qwipster's rating:

©2007 Vince Leo