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Monday, December 17, 2007

THE LAST LEGION -- DVD and Film Review by Porfle

Porfle joins the team with his review of The Last Legion coming to DVD this Tuesday!

THE LAST LEGION (2007) opens with 460 A.D. Rome installing a 12-year-old kid as their exalted emperor simply because he's the last of Julius Caesar’s bloodline. Sounds a bit half-baked to me, but it sorta actually happened in real life--the events in the first part of the movie are loosely based on history, all the way through the part where the Goths move in and kick Rome's ass shortly after Romulus Augustus assumes power. The kid is banished for life to the island of Capri (at which point history loses track of him) along with his teacher and mentor, the mysterious Ambrosinus (Ben Kingsley), who excels in using parlor tricks and sleight-of-hand to convey the illusion of sorcery. 

While most of the defeated Romans are scrambling to welcome their new Goth overlords, the Roman military commander Aurelius (Colin Firth) escapes with some of his best guys and plans to rescue Romulus. But they'll need help if they ever hope to retake Rome, and the only remaining legion that hasn't been slaughtered or assimilated by the Goths is in Brittania. There, a new and even more frightening enemy awaits--the dreaded conqueror Vortgyn (Harry Van Gorkum), a golden-masked villain with whom Ambrosinus has unfinished business.

THE LAST LEGION is handsomely mounted, beautifully lit and photographed, with authentic-looking period detail and locations (although the occasional less-than-perfect matte shot or CGI effect may induce a slight cringe). Some of the sets, especially during the Rome segment, are impressive.

Director Doug Lefler populates most of the crowd scenes with actual extras (as many as 1300 in the coronation scene) and only rarely packs the frame with digitally-generated replicants. This gives the film the aura of a more traditional old-style sword epic from the 50s or 60s rather than the unreal hyper-grandiosity of the LOTR films, especially in the gritty final battle sequence between the "last legion" and Vortgyn's hordes at Hadrian's wall in Britannia.

But despite all that, this film isn't quite an epic--more of a "mini-epic"--with a somewhat lighthearted and at times storybook veneer that sets it apart from the more sober and adult-oriented likes of GLADIATOR. This is most evident in the character of Mira (Aishwarya Rai), a lithe warrior woman who runs around mowing down hordes of bad guys single-handledly while managing to look gorgeous the whole time. I haven't Googled whatever form of exotic martial arts she's supposed to be a master of, but apparently it involves the ability to kill all opponents regardless of size or number. Anyway, Rai is a real looker who handles the fight choreography beautifully, and it's fun watching her character in action.

For me, though, the best thing about THE LAST LEGION is seeing how various elements of the story gradually come together to form the genesis of the King Arthur legend. At one point Romulus discovers the "sword of kings", created for Julius Caesar and passed down to his descendants, which we know will eventually become known as Excalibur. The first really literal indication of Arthur's origin comes when Romulus forms his first boyhood crush on a girl named "Ygraine." And, of course, Ambrosinus himself bears a striking resemblance to a certain Arthurian sorcerer.

But the main difference in tone between this and John Boorman's EXCALIBUR, for instance, is the lack of fantasy elements--here, we're shown a relatively plausible basis from which a magical, mystical legend might develop through generations of retelling.

Ben Kingsley plays Ambrosinus with his usual presence and skill. Colin Firth's Aurelius is suitably heroic, although the pep talk he gives his men before the final battle isn't anywhere near as stirring as Theoden's "sword day" speech in THE RETURN OF THE KING or Mel Gibson's wild-eyed rants in BRAVEHEART.

The rest of the cast is fine, including Alexander Siddig of "Deep Space Nine" and THE MUMMY's John Hannah as a duplicitous Roman senator, but it's the young Thomas Sangster as Romulus upon whom everything hinges. He gives an impressively mature and convincing performance, with a physical presence that makes me think of a pint-sized Jeremy Irons or Malcolm McDowell.

The DVD image is anamorphic with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Picture quality looks great to me, and I had no problem with the sound as well.

Bonus features include deleted scenes with optional director's commentary, the most interesting being an 8-minute alternate edit of the final battle sequence. There's also a short "making of" featurette, a storyboard-to-film comparison (which I skipped since I couldn't care less about storyboard-to-film comparisons), a theatrical trailer, and a detailed and informative commentary track by Doug Lefler. My favorite, though, is an 11-minute short featuring some intense, in-character stunt performers running through a greatest hits collection of the film's furious fight choreography.

THE LAST LEGION isn't likely to achieve classic status, cult or otherwise, but for fans of the King Arthur legend, sword-and-sorcery, and/or historical drama mixed with lots of action, it's definitely worth checking out.


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