Happy birthday Firecracker… here’s some hot Colin Firth for ya. And swashbucklin’ babes for me.
This sword and sandal epic released in the shadow of 300 took a serious beating from the critics and those who saw it in theaters. I decided to give it a try anyway when it was on cable in HD, thinking that like other berated B-level action films such as Eragon and Doomsday it might serve as good viewing from the comfort of my couch, rather than taking $12 out of my pocket.
The story echoes The 13th Warrior, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and better movies like Gladiator and Excalibur. It begins in Rome, 460 A.D., when the city’s might has fallen and it must deal with Goths to the north and Constantinople, the new seat of the empire. Young Romulus is the last of the line and is about to be crowned Caesar, when the Goths break treaty and invade. Aurelius (Colin Firth) is the young boy’s commander of the guard, and when the boy and his greybearded teacher Ambrosinus are exiled to Capri, he must rescue them. Luckily he still has a few good men and an ambassador from Constantinople with a kick-ass lady warrior bodyguard to help.
Ambrosinus is played by Ben Kingsley in his best impression of what he’d have done if Ian McKellen was too busy to play Gandalf, with parlor tricks, platitudes and a crooked staff for ass-whuppin’ when all else fails. It was touch keeping the supernatural ambiguous. The Goths are led by the conqueror Odoacer with his over-ambitious and bloodthirsty henchman Wulfila, a scenery-chewing villain sent to guard the boy. Colin Firth is decent as the Roman commander- he may be Mr. Darcy, but he’s still convincing as a warrior a bit long in the tooth, much like the empire he represents. If anything rings untrue, it’s his dispassion when faced with swordswoman Mira, played by Bollywood hottie Aishwarya Rai.
After an exciting rescue from the island fortress, with plenty of weaponry for us history and RPG nerds like proper gladiuses, falcatas, huge fuck-off Viking axes, a spring-bladed push dagger that Aishwarya must have brought from India, foot-pulled crossbows for launching grappling spikes, and siege engines I think were meant to be scorpions, or multiple-firing crossbows. Our heroes are a motley band- the young guy, the big black guy (Nonso Anonzie from Atonement, RockNRolla), the woman warrior, the old man, and the kid. Unfortunately it loses steam shortly after the rescue, when the backstory emerges.
The young Caesar, egged on by Ambrosinus, searches the fortress of his exile and finds a room enshrining a bejewelled sword, inscribed with prophecies. And if we’re unsure as to what it is, all mystery is removed when he chops a bed in half with it. This is an Excalibur story, and for that to work they must travel to Britannia. They do so with a few Lord of the Rings-inspired walks over mountain passes, with Wulfila not far behind. In Britain they hope to find the legendary Ninth Legion, believed lost. Of course they find them, now farmers, and the land is under siege by another tyrant named Vortgyn, whom they must fight. He wears a gold mask like Mordred in Excalibur, and tried to the sword from Ambrosinus decades ago, and wants it back. Confusing? Yes.
Directed by a veteran of the Hercules and Xena series, it certainly lacks that certain finish necessary for the big screen, but on TV it looks like a great made for TV movie. The fight choreography looks great for fifteen years ago, but we’ve seen it so many times before. It’s obviously not the director’s forte, but he manages to keep the movie flowing at a good pace and it never takes itself too seriously. The score is a little too bombastic at times, and Kingsley’s Gandalfesque “wizard” does spout wisdom that isn’t as wise as he thinks it is. The battle scenes have been criticized but they were decent- I really liked how they made Ambrosinus look like a wizard hurling fireballs, when he was just standing on the parapet in front of the catapults. It was a neat trick to pull on the invading Goths.
My biggest complaint is that it was cut to be PG-13 for U.S. audiences, and painfully obvious about it. Every time a spear hits someone, we cut away, and then see their death scene. In one of my favorite fights, Wulfila gets a scar from Aurelius using his own axe on him, but we cut away. A leader cuts off a disobedient soldier’s finger, and in the uncut version Ambrosinus’s pet crow makes a snack of it. But all that is cut. I’m tempted to throw it in my Netflix queue and see if the deleted scenes are available. The other failing is the CG- when used, it is used badly. The fireballs look fake, and what should be a spectacle at the end looks like a videogame cutscene. But this is not bad viewing if you want a light adventure movie. It’s a cute origin story for King Arthur’s Dad Uther Pendragon, and fun to watch.