There is one very clever, even brilliant sequence in “The Last Legion” that features Aishwarya Rai’s warrior woman. In it, the good guys have just scaled the walls of an island castle in order to rescue the imprisoned boy Caesar within, and must now deal with the prison’s army of Goth captors. The men in the group heads off, leaving Rai’s character to battle one Goth. Suddenly, two, three, then a whole army of Goths show up all around her. Basically, the men’s idea of chivalry, giving the girl the one Goth while they go face the real villains, ends up with the girl killing nearly all of the Goths single-handedly. It’s just a strangely fantastic moment in an otherwise forgettable film.
The film stars Colin Firth as Aurelius, a Roman General who still believes in honor, duty, and country, which comes in handy when he’s assigned to guard Rome’s newest Caesar, a young boy named Romulus (Thomas Sangster). Unfortunately for young Romulus, being Caesar isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, what with the last 5 Caesars all having been assassinated in the previous 5 years. Soon, the Goths, led by Odoacer (Peter Mullan), have sacked Rome and taken over, forcing Aurelius to flee with Romulus. With the help of Aurelius’ loyal men and a foreign warrior beauty named Mira (Rai), the group find themselves heading north to Britannia, where either salvation or death awaits them.
Actually, “The Last Legion” takes about an hour to get to its Britannia storyline, and until then it is a moderately budgeted action-adventure romp through the last days of the Roman Empire. Director Doug Lefler does his best to try to make “Legion” look more expensive than it really is, with grand vistas, soaring orchestral scores, and CGI effects that are somewhat successful. Of course, that doesn’t explain why the Goths were able to take over all of Rome overnight. You would think the Romans would be tougher to conquer, but apparently you would be very wrong.
Now on the run, our group of heroes gets able assistance from old guy Ambrosinus, played by old guy Ben Kingsley. Ambrosinus has a bit of an ulterior motive, having been sent to Rome many years ago by a guy in a gold mask to find Julius Caesar’s magical sword and bring it back home to Britannia. As luck would have it, the island castle where Romulus is imprisoned just happens to be the same place where ol Julius hid that sword a long time ago. So to Britannia the group goes, magical sword in hand. The script actually has a bit of a plot twist toward the end, and as the clues come together, I think anyone who has seen their share of Middle Ages swordplay movie will have figured out where it’s going. (By the way, anyone got a pen? Pen…dragon?)
The most notable obstacle for “The Last Legion” is that it’s a theatrical movie with epic ambitions shot on a TV movie budget. Had the film stuck to limited swordfights and skirmishes, it might have been able to survive its lack of resources. Alas, there are a number of grand conflicts, including the final 20 minutes, which makes it painfully obvious that “The Last Legion” has neither the money nor the ability to pull off such a large-scale battle. It never ceases to amaze me why producers insist on going for first place when they’re only capable of reaching, at best, the third spot on the podium. Stick to within your limitations, guys, and the final product will be better for it.
Budget aside, “The Last Legion” is not a total loss. Although the script really doesn’t focus on it, I rather enjoyed the interplay between tough guy Aurelius and the mesmerizing Mira. Of course it helps that Aishwarya Rai is playing Mira, and that the former Miss World can bedazzle with a simple look. There are a number of great scenes with Rai, including a jaw-dropping sequence where her character emerges out of the lake, dripping wet. Modesty forbids the recently married Rai from showing too much, which also explains why the two romantic leads consummate their love affair with Mira slipping into his bed and Aurelius covering her with a blanket before the scene fades out. Yawn.
As our dashing Roman hero, Colin Firth doesn’t have a whole lot to do, unfortunately. The film, and the script by Jez and Tom Butterworth (“Birthday Girl”) loses points for not making better use of Firth’s ability to deliver wry humor with the best of them. Firth does get to ply his excellent comedic chops early in the film, including another inspired moment when he sees Mira rising out of the lake for the first time. Unfortunately, Firth and much of the cast gets lost in the background in the Third Act, which introduces gold mask wearing villain Vortgyn (Harry Van Gorkum), leading to the film’s climactic final battle.
There are other failures that have nothing to do with the budget (or lack thereof). There is an odious indulgence in wannabe epic filmmaking that utilizes an overly obnoxious score to wring emotion out of the audience. As well, the film trips over itself with technical issues, such as erratic editing that fails to present the film’s action in coherent fashion, and an inability by director Doug Lefler (who has done mostly TV work) to properly allow scenes to develop at their own pace. These are all bad decisions that, if curtailed, could have resulted in a better film.
The film’s running time is also an issue. “The Last Legion” should have been lengthen into mini-series length to accommodate the script’s ambitions, or trimmed to a standard 90-minute TV movie. The latter could have easily been accomplished by ridding the story of the Vortgyn subplot, something that pops up later in the film for no purpose other to tie the film’s Third Act into the King Arthur legend. Concentrate on the characters, develop the relationship between Aurelius and Mira, while at the same time gradually grow the boy king and his mentor Ambrosinus, and “The Last Legion” wouldn’t have to worry about overcompensating for a lack of budget.
Doug Lefler (director) / Jez Butterworth, Tom Butterworth (screenplay), Carlo Carlei, Peter Rader, Valerio Manfredi (story)
CAST: Colin Firth … Aurelius
Thomas Sangster … Romulus Augustus
Ben Kingsley … Ambrosinus
Aishwarya Rai … Mira
Peter Mullan … Odoacer
Kevin McKidd … Wulfila
John Hannah … Nestor
Iain Glen … Orestes