Thursday, 25 October 2007

The Last Legion

Alister Burton's thoughts on what he calls 'The Last Legion (Hopefully)'.

Infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me, as Kenneth Williams said in Carry On Cleo. All useful comments welcome!

On paper, Doug Lefler seems like a good choice to bring an amalgamation of Roman and Arthurian facts and legends to the silver screen. His CV is a comprehensive list of fantasy and adventure; he has been a storyboard artist on such projects as the 1994 Hercules TV programmes and Evil Dead sequel Army of Darkness (1992). Furthermore, he has directed films Dragonheart: A New Beginning (2000) and TV shows, Hercules (as above), Babylon 5 (1998) and Xena: Warrior Princess (1998-99). So why does he make such a mess of the Last Legion? Well, it seems that experience doesn’t count for everything. The problems with this film start when you look at the credits.

Perusing Colin Firth’s acting CV it seems hard – nay impossible – to reason why the producers of The Last Legion would want to cast him as Aurelius, a no-nonsense, battle-hardened Roman soldier. This is the same Colin Firth who stands alongside the perma-grinning Hugh Grant as one of the great English fops; the same Colin firth who has found fame through films like Bridget Jones’ Diary (and the sequel), Nanny Mcphee, Love Actually, Girl With a Pearl Earring, Hope Springs, The Importance of Being Earnest, Shakespeare In Love etcetera etcetera. No one would want Hugh Grant running around in a skirt (and it is a skirt) waving his gladius around, so why is it acceptable for Colin Firth?

In short, it’s not acceptable. Not in the slightest.

Contrary to the horribly miscast Aurelius, Kevin McKidd is fresh from finishing the two-season BBC/HBO TV series Rome, where he plays a no-nonsense, battle-hardened and at times unhinged Roman soldier. It would be easy for McKidd to reprise this role in The Last Legion but, understandably, he would want to avoid falling into the trap of the typecast. So

how could he star in a film about Rome and Roman soldiers now? By starring as a no-nonsense, battle-hardened, and certainly unhinged Germanic Goth barbarian, of course.

It would be easy to spend this whole review condemning the casting choices for this film, in particular Ben Kingsley as Ambrosinus/Merlin, who is in no way magic, this perhaps to protect the film’s supposed historical credibility. But it is that factor – credibility – that this film lacks, chiefly because of the hideously overwritten storyline and the type of GCSE drama class acting that makes you want to vomit into your popcorn.

The film begins with the coronation of Romulus Augustus as a new child Caesar and from there, moves at a pace akin to a horse riding on a jet-powered motorbike, which, incidentally, is akin to how ridiculous this film is. But I digress. Rome at this time has an uneasy alliance with the Germanic Goths that Kevin Mckidd, aka Wulfila, is associated with. This alliance is so uneasy in fact, that it breaks down only five minutes into the film, when the Goths, led by Odoacer (who appears in fact to be Scottish) invade and successfully conquer Rome and capture the newly crowned Caesar, and all in one night!

What follows is an hour of Romans chasing Goths, and Goths chasing Romans, with some double-crossing Byzantines in the mix somewhere too. Along the way, Caesar Augustus finds a “sword of power” after being captured with Ambrosinus on the island of Capri and from here begins the setup of the final Arthurian twist in the film by including some subtle-as-a-brick-in-the-face moments, such as Colin Firth’s arm sweeping from underneath a large body of water clutching his sword. It would seem that director Doug Lefler is in fact out to insult the audience’s intelligence.

Onward then, does Colin Firth prance, over to Brittania, where the last surviving legion of Roman soldiers is hiding. Aurelius arrives at their fort and finds these soldier

saviours of his gone. It’s okay though, they’re not dead, they’ve just been for a walk in the hills and they turn up soon enough. Enter villain #2 who is so enigmatic that the audience gets told nothing about him except his name – Vortgyn - and that he and Ambrosinus/Merlin don’t see eye to eye. Essentially this only serves as a vehicle for the pursuing Goths to gain some extra manpower by promising Vortgyn the sword that Romulus carries.

What follows is a low-budget, uninspiring and badly choreographed battle sequence, between the heroes and villains, with several of the “last legion” seeking refuge outside the walls of their own fort, amid the attacking villains. No, I don’t know why either. The battle concludes with somewhat of a ‘deus ex machina’ but by this point I was too glad it was over to care.

And so to the ending. The tagline to The Last Legion reads, ‘Before King Arthur, there was Excalibur,’ which perhaps suggests that the Roman/Arthurian aspects of the film are quite balanced and complement each other throughout. Not so. Apart from the few not-so-subtle moments as mentioned before, the tying together of the two themes doesn’t come until the last ninety seconds of a long 110 minute film. It is tempting to reveal those final ninety seconds so any reading this can join me in a state of torporific bewilderment, solely inflicted by Doug Lefler grasping at Arthurian themed straws. However I don’t want to be responsible for a mass induced coma, so I’ll leave that to Lefler. Besides, those who haven’t already guessed the films conclusion by now are probably those already comatose and some breeds of dog.

The concept behind this film is tolerable, it’s execution terrible. The whole film has a vagueness to it, which is reflected in the scriptwriting and Colin Firth’s lazy performance – particularly during his combat scenes and “rousing” speech to rally his troops. The sets are

unimaginative at best, some of which look like they have been constructed purely from polystyrene. Behind the film is a concept designed for an adult audience, yet Lefler has watered it down in order to squeeze a 12A certificate out of the BBFC and a few more banknotes into his pocket. The camera suddenly cuts away at the point of any sword/spear/projectile impacting with flesh, and an off-screen grunt or groan informs the audience of that particular character’s doom. There is a vague hint of Aurelius as a father-figure to the young Romulus, which serves only as another setup to the final consolidation of the plot, as does Aurelius’ romance with Byzantine traitor Mira.

Lefler was quoted as saying about The Last Legion, “It was really a director’s dream. All of my cast were so dedicated to this project. In their opinion, it was a very unique experience, because there was not a cynical voice amongst them. Nobody was doing it for a paycheck. Everybody was into it. They would read books about Roman military strategy in their spare time.”[1] Well it certainly doesn’t show, Doug.

[1] Doug Lefler Interview (The Trades, Aug 17, 2007, by Scott Juba)

1 comment:

Victor Pencak said...

I can't wait to see this movie...
I saw the trailer and my only thought was:This is going to be the best 2007 movie!
Here is the link if you haven't seen yet: