Swashbuckle is in curious short supply in "Last Legion," a mythology-flavored fantasy epic from Dino De Laurentiis's epic factory, tossed unmercifully into US theaters this weekend with only a wisp of marketing and no press screenings. Treatment typically associated with the kiss of death, "Legion" actually holds a small spark of pleasing adventure, making it passable matinee fare, just don't ask too much from it.
In the declining days of Rome, a young king named Romulus (Thomas Sangster, "Love Actually") is crowned. When evil forces storm the city, the boy, protected by royal officer Aurelius (Colin Firth), is taken to the countryside to find safety with his mentor, Ambrosinus (Ben Kingsley). When it's learned that most Roman forces have been eliminated, it's up to Aurelius to lead his band of men, along with a strange warrior from a foreign land (Aishwarya Rai), to a safe harbor where they can regroup and prepare to fight back. Along the way, Romulus discovers his destiny when he uncovers a special sword called Excalibur, meant only for the bravest of leaders.
There's considerable proof throughout "Last Legion" that some serious coin was spent to bring this peculiar story to the screen. The production didn't skimp out on the details, mounting a lavish costume spectacle that's ready to rumble, yet is assigned a lumbering story to sort out. Frightened to lean too heavily towards the fantasy elements of the plot, "Legion" crumbles when it focuses on banal Roman political maneuvering. There's a multitude of sniveling double-crosses and protracted battle planning in the script, which doesn't hold much interest. With actors in bad wigs and covered in ornate battle armor, taking elongated breaks between the action beats to chat endlessly about political allegiances seems to defeat the purpose of this gallant affair.
Once "Legion" turns its attention back to swordplay and displays of courage, the film perks up considerably. While a victim of jumbled editing to snip out the bloody bits, the film still mounts some impressive moments of derring-do. Firth and Rai (the oddest screen coupling of the year) get the most out of the action sequences, both playing against type, but still delivering hot-blooded performances that drink heavily from the well-worn cup of screen heroism. "Legion" isn't ambitious with its fight choreography, preferring the standard assortment of good vs. evil match-ups to play the film close to mainstream tastes. It won't blow your socks off, but it's more satisfying that expected. Children will certainly dig it.
At the midway point, it's obvious "Legion" doesn't have much narrative gas. A crucial mistake is made with the introduction of the villain at the hour mark, making his streak of violence short-lived and unremarkable. Once the film curls up in the lap of Arthurian legend at the conclusion of the picture, "Legion" has overstayed its welcome, ruining what should've been a very eloquent introduction to the Excalibur story. However, "Last Legion" isn't completely lacking in entertainment value, just inspiration. Trust me, it's worth the price of admission to see Colin Firth, an actor of such steely emotional reserve, play butch for two hours in a Mike Brady perm.
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