What's most frustrating about The Last Legion (Weinstein Company and Genius Products)-- and there's plenty that's frustrating about The Last Legion -- are the signs of how good this well-intentioned disappointment could have been.
After all, it's set in the dying days of the Roman Empire, the fifth century, which conjures images of weary and ragged legions, gigantic ancient statuary, desperate battles and an atmosphere befitting a mighty civilization in decline. All of which The Last Legion tries in good faith to offer us.
And then there's the cast, a basket of actors who have proven their reliable appeal. We get Colin Firth (Bridget Jones' Diary, Love Actually) as General Aurelius, who, after an attack by the barbarian Goths kills most of his legionnaires, is left to protect the newly crowned boy-emperor. That's 12-year-old Romulus Augustus (Thomas Sangster, Love Actually, Nanny McPhee, Doctor Who's "Family of Blood" two-parter). He's the last of the Caesars and, we're given to believe, has it within him to grow into a wise and just ruler.
As Ambrosinus, the mysterious mentor and magician who will eventually become Merlin (did I mention that all of this is a prequel of sorts to the Arthur legend?), it's no one less than Ben Kingsley, whom we are still obliged to refer to as "Academy Award winner Ben Kingsley." To escape the evil usurper (Peter Mullan, Braveheart, Trainspotting) determined to kill Romulus, the fellowship -- I mean, the rightful ruler and his loyal ragtag companions -- seek aid and refuge by journeying across medieval Europe to the distant Roman outpost of Britannia. The Indian warrior they gain on the way is played by the world's most beautiful woman, Aishwarya Rai.
There are the requisite imprisonments and escapes, hidden chambers, and even badass warlords pursuing Romulus to snatch a legendary magic sword forged from a meteorite -- the powerful MacGuffin destined to become Excalibur, the sword in the stone.
As written on a 3x5" card for a pitch meeting, the potential sure is there. A great setting in time and place. An intriguing cast. A thrills-my-socks-off story concept based on a well-regarded book by Italian archaeologist and historical fiction writer Valerio Massimo Manfredi. Lots of big location shots, some CGI and, okay, Aishwarya Rai. Let's go! I'll spring for the popcorn.
But something happened on the way to saving the known world. What wants to be an "action-packed epic" -- in line with Ridley Scott's Gladiator and other recent sword-and-sandal spectacles from directors ranging from Wolfgang Petersen to Oliver Stone -- instead comes across as a B-movie melodrama that's too cheap-looking, too uncertain of its purpose in life, too fustily old-fashioned and, worst of all, appears to have been committee'd to death. This UK-France-USA co-production, from B-epic moguls the De Laurentiis clan and TV director Doug Lefler in his motion picture debut, pulls itself apart trying to be a grand adventure reminiscent (too much so) of Lord of the Rings. Or maybe it's Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars we're supposed to think of as favorable comparisons. Or is it an historical drama with high-toned shadings of Arthurian mysticism?
Whatever it was intended to be, what it is turns out to be a mishmash and a mess, spiritless and un-involving from scene to unconvincing scene. From the opening narration, festooned with images flowing and drifting across the screen like pet-shop fish trying to escape their tank, to the closing epilogue that attaches the King Arthur trailer hitch, The Last Legion looks and feels like a movie that went through a dozen too many revisions and production meetings, with everyone down to the producer's second assistant secretary's dog walker having a say in the final product. There may once have been a "vision" behind The Last Legion, but if so it got hammered flat early in the process.
Firth and Kingsley offer all the performance spark of strong actors just dutifully showing up to fulfill their contractual obligations. Rai, the Bollywood beauty cast as the Xena-if-only perfunctory love interest, makes little impression even as alluring eye appeal.
A core problem is the fill-in-the-blanks script, from five credited screenwriters, which seems treated like a grudgingly necessary inconvenience less important than how cool the set-piece storyboards looked. As the plot dully thuds along, its battle scenes, presumably one of the top reasons for making movies like this, are directed and edited with little regard for the audience's need to be thrilled by them.
Director Lefler either was assigned more than he could handle or else -- as we may infer from his listless DVD commentary track -- didn't bring enough strength of vision, enthusiasm or whatever else was needed to give The Last Legion the focus and distinctiveness it fatally lacks.
And that's what is so frustrating about The Last Legion. It could have been a terrific historical fantasy for young audiences. The Last Legion could have been a magnet for adventure-hungry tweens if it had been made with passion as a kids' film, a young-adult adventure with just enough history and mythmaking to feel virtuous in a PBS-special kind of way. But because it can't decide on a particular tone, direction, audience or purpose, neither young Sangster nor Lefler can imbue Romulus or his story with the power and heroism we'd expect in a character young viewers will care to identify with, never mind in the future sire of the Pendragons and Arthur.
Still, we can safely hope that The Last Legion on DVD, which probably looks better scaled down to small screens than it ever did in the cinemas, might inspire some future historical-adventurers at home. There are, after all, aimed at young audiences plenty of movies more mean-spirited, indiscriminate and obnoxious than The Last Legion. But at the same time there are plenty that are, alas, less frustrating.
The Last Legion arrives on DVD with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, the commentary track by director Doug Lefler, ten deleted scenes with optional commentary, a "making of" featurette and another one on the fight scene choreography, as well as "From the Director's Sketchbook: A Storyboard-to-Film Comparison."