Well, buckle my swash if I didn't just enjoy the hell out of myself.
The Last Legion is not a great film. It's not at all sophisticated, and it doesn't have an original thought in its head. Yet, I'm not going to pretend I didn't like it, because I actually really did. It's the simple pleasures in life, sometimes, that knock us on our ears, and this very simplistic movie reminded me what it's like to unashamedly enjoy a movie even when you know you shouldn't. It's the kind of sword and sorcery adventure that would have made me go bonkers when I was ten years old, and watching it today made me feel like I was ten again. These days, when fanboys are constantly rending their garments and gnashing their teeth because some carnivorous film studio is remolding characters they loved when they were kids and selling it back to them as something completely different, what a joy it is to find a film that gives me that same kind of nostalgia without even trying. (And let's face it, if you can't stay away from junk like Alvin and the Chipmunks because you loved the Saturday morning cartoon twenty years ago, you're a sucker. Besides, it's not your childhood they're selling you, your childhood is secure where you left it. The only thing about your childhood they are returning to you when they remake Underdog or the Transformers is the grim truth that when you were that young, you were dumb enough to spend your money on anything. But I digress....)
In The Last Legion, Colin Firth plays General Aurelius, a Roman legionnaire who returns to his homeland after adventuring with his multicultural band of merry men in order to take a position defending the newly crowned emperor. Romulus Augustus Caesar (Thomas Sangster, Nanny McPhee) is the fifth Caesar to be crowned in as many years, and he has yet to reach puberty. This leaves the Empire vulnerable to its enemies, and a recently angered Visigoth named Odoacer (Peter Mullan) storms the gates, kills Romulus' parents, and kidnaps the boy.
Loyal to the end, Aurelius takes his three remaining soldiers and a skillful warrior on loan from Constantinople to rescue his king. Only, he doesn't know that the warrior is really a woman. Mira is played by Aishwarya Rai, a leading Bollywood actress who is as badass as she is beautiful. Man, what I wouldn't have given to have posters of her on my wall when I was Romulus' age! Umm, but again, a digression....
Romulus is also protected by a mysterious philosopher magician named Ambrosinus (Ben Kingsley) who tells him of a prophecy involving a magic sword that only the true Caesar can wield. Romulus' discovery of this sword coincides with his liberation from Odoacer's nasty henchman (Kevin McKidd). Unfortunately, it's a victory short lived. The Roman politicians have sold the boy out, and the small crew flees to Brittania, where they must battle a new enemy, Ambrosinus' old nemesis Vortgyn (Harry Van Gorkum), a Dungeons 'n' Dragons refugee with a mad-on to get that sword. Apparently he, like us, knows it's Excalibur. He's read ahead and understands what that means.
The Last Legion is directed by Doug Lefler, who previously has worked on the TV shows "Xena" and "Hercules." While I am not a fan of those programs, they did teach Lefler something about tempering his high adventure with a sense of humor. Sure, a lot of the gags are older than Excalibur itself--Mira having to step on Aurelius' head to climb past him up a wall, comical double-takes, etc.--but it's all in good fun. The Last Legion is meant to play to an audience that is far less cynical than old farts like me. In fact, it seems to me that allowing it to get a PG-13 rating and not marketing this movie to the family crowd was a colossal miscalculation. The Sword in the Stone holds a special place in my heart from when I saw it lo' those many years ago (I think movies had only just gotten sound then), and The Last Legion could end up being the same kind of special to someone else twenty years from now. Boys always want to dream about going on quests, winning great battles, and living out a destiny that suggests they are far greater than anyone ever dreamed.
I don't really get why The Last Legion is rated PG-13, anyway. For "Sequences of Intense Action Violence"? Please! Yes, the action is intense, but it's not overly bloody or even vicious. Yes, people die, there are real consequences to the sword fights, and it's not always pretty, but there is nothing excessive or gruesome about what we see on the screen. On the contrary, it's nice to see some battles in a movie that actually make sense again, rather than just being exercises in chaos. Lefler avoids rapid-fire cutting and dramatic slow-motion effects, instead choreographing real duels and letting us see the moves. Colin Firth is more than credible as a chivalrous action hero, and Aishwarya Rai is fierce. Seriously, Mr. Demille, this woman is ready for her close-up!
So, screw it. I liked The Last Legion. Is it a movie I'm going to watch a million times? No. In fact, I may never watch it again. All I know is that from the moment it started, I was grinning and chuckling like the schoolboy I once was, and given how much time I've wasted on overstuffed studio turkeys and pretentious cinematic buffoonery in the last year, The Last Legion gets a big ol' film-critic hug from me for not being afraid to live the dream.
The Last Legion receives a solid, if unremarkable, 16:9 DVD transfer. Everything looks good, but like the movie, is really just average. I didn't notice any edge enhancement or artifacting, and the colors all seemed fine. I just wasn't particularly dazzled either.
The soundtrack is mixed in 5.1, and unlike the picture, there were moments where the soundtrack actually sparkled. The battle scenes all sound really good, full of activity but maintaining a clarity for the central information that actually needs to get across.
Subtitle choices are Spanish and English for the deaf and hearing-impaired.
You say you want more than a mere theatrical trailer to soothe your DVD desires? Have no fear. The trailer is here, but there are also plenty of other bonus features to be found on the DVD for The Last Legion.
First up, we have deleted scenes with optional commentary by director Doug Lefler. There are ten in all. Some are inconsequential, barely lasting thirty seconds. Others flesh out story points (Odacer's ruthless dealings with the Turkish ambassador) or give us greater character detail (Aurelius is a widower). These scenes total nearly eighteen minutes, with an alternate edit of the final battle taking up half of that.
Lefler also recorded a full-length commentary for the main feature. It's a very detailed track, talking about the most minute of decisions and really breaking down the process of making The Last Legion to its extreme. It's one of the better commentaries I've heard on a film this new in a while.
Several documentary featurettes round out the bonus section. "Fight Scene Choreography" is a collection of rehearsal footage showing the stunt men working out and planning the moves for multiple battles (11 minutes, 40 seconds). "Making the Last Legion" is your average behind-the-scenes promo, using interviews and footage of the crew at work to give an overview of the production (20:40). Finally, "From the Director's Sketchbook: A Storyboard to Film Comparison" shows four separate sequences with the final film on the bottom and the corresponding storyboards on the top of the screen (6:40).
Look, what do you wanna do? Make a federal case out of it? I watched The Last Legion on a Saturday night and I wish I'd had a huge bucket of popcorn, because I'd have been chomping on that good stuff all the way through. This isn't high-art, nor is it even exceptional low trash, it's just a fun quest-for-the-sword half-epic that captured the feeling of the unpretentious adventure movies that got my blood boiling once upon a time. I'd have wanted to be Romulus, ready to rule, ready to wield the big sword, and more than ready to have Aishwarya Rai next to me wailing on the bad guys. Go ahead and Rent It and don't worry about it.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.