The Last Legion is an old-fashioned sword-and-sandal movie, albeit one which feels more Dino De Laurentiis than Cecil B. DeMille. It casually, amusingly mashes heavily-altered history with heavily-altered Arthurian legend to create an undeniably clunky but weirdly likable adventure film. The movie was marketed to fans of 300 in the wake of that film's success, but the two movies couldn't be more different from a tonal perspective. While 300 was grim, serious and ultraviolent, The Last Legion is cheerful, upbeat and family-friendly. Admittedly, they're both pretty silly.
Our story begins in Rome circa 460 A.D., where a young Romulus Augustus (Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Love Actually) is taking his place as the country's new emperor. Alas, the day after the coronation, Rome is overthrown by Odoacer (Peter Mullan, War Horse), the savage leader of the Goths. Both of Romulus' parents are killed in the chaos, and Odoacer plans to have the boy executed as well (just to finish off the family bloodline once and for all). Thankfully, a sorcerer named Ambrosinus (Ben Kingsley, Schindler's List) is able to persuade Rome's new leader to merely exile Romulus to the island of Capri.
Meanwhile, Romulus' right-hand man and general Aurelius (Colin Firth, Kingsman: The Secret Service) is conducting a frantic search for his emperor. In the middle of his quest, he encounters a ferocious and beautiful warrior named Mira (Aishwara Rai Bachchan, Bride & Prejudice), who beats up bad guys on a regular basis and occasionally bats her eyes at Aurelius. Eventually (and inevitably), Aurelius and Mira (and their assorted bros) meet up with Ambrosinus and Romulus (and their assorted bros). The reunion is a happy one, but now they face a larger problem: they must find enough men to reclaim Rome and place Romulus back on the throne.
The plot is actually a good deal messier than that, as it attempts to stuff a vast amount of characters and political conflicts into a mere 102 minutes. Word is that an early version of the film ran nearly four hours, and that's easy to believe – it feels like we're watching a CliffsNotes version of a miniseries. Characters are left underdeveloped (the supporting cast – which includes no less than seven actors who would later end up doing better work on Game of Thrones – seems ridiculously overqualified), major plot beats feel rushed and the film's central villain (played with such seething menace by Mullan) disappears midway through and never reappears for some reason. It's a mess.
Firth seems almost hilariously miscast in the central role, trying his level best to bring some Russell Crowe grit to the part but generally looking very much like Mr. Darcy playing dress-up. He's charismatic and engaging, as usual, but out of place. Kingsley seems fairly disinterested in his role, which is no surprise given that his talent often seems directly proportional to the quality of a film he's appearing in (he's terrific in Hugo, Shutter Island and Schindler's List, but completely wooden in this, BloodRayne and Thunderbirds). Poor Rai fares the worst, getting saddled with a generic Strong Female Character role that involves nothing more than stabbing people and looking pretty.
So why did I have a goofy grin on my face when the credits rolled? I'm easy, I suppose. There's a very earnest, old-fashioned quality to the movie; a genuine desire to entertain that permits The Last Legion to stand out amidst a sea of half-hearted blockbusters. The small-scale battle scenes are actually rather well-choreographed, Colin Firth's big “rally the troops” speech is enjoyable sub-Shakespearean rhetoric and the movie's closing moments – which treat an obvious twist as the most mind-blowing revelation of all time – are hilariously, delightfully sincere. Most of all, I enjoyed Patrick Doyle's score, which is filled to the brim with soaring anthems and is permitted to carry the movie on a surprisingly frequent basis (the production team was smart enough to allow the score to overpower the sound effects). This isn't a good movie, but if you catch on cable on some lazy Saturday afternoon when you're in just the right mood, you might find it diverting.
The Last Legion
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 102 minutes
Release Year: 2007