Review: “The Last Legion”

A generic TV movie that’s somehow getting a theatrical release, “The Last Legion” is a rather hokey historical actioneer that plays like a throwback to those bodice-ripping, sword and sandal epics of the 50’s, before turning into a remake of the Clive Owen-led 2004 take on “King Arthur”.

Many will dismiss this outright for its cheapness. Sets are wobbly and often very sparsely populated, whilst visual effects make some of the older Playstation 2 games look cutting edge. TV director Doug Lefler makes a feature debut here, but his lack of experience (and funds) show with many bad CG mattes trying to extend tennis court sized sets into vast arenas. Not helping is that many of them come front-loaded in the film’s first act set in Rome.

‘Legion’ is based on Valerio Massimo Manfredi’s book of the same name which tries to tie the King Arthur legend to Romulus Augustus, a 14-year-old child who holds the inauspicious title of being the last Emperor of the Western Roman Empire. With the real seat of power now lying to the East in Constantinople, Rome has crumbled and within a year the Empire falls to the Germanic barbarians – perhaps the greatest empire in history ending not in a bang, but a whimper.

Historically it’s a fascinating period that has almost never been portrayed on screen before, and Manfredi’s claims aren’t as far fetched as you might expect according to quite a few historians (after he was deposed, the real Romulus Augustus disappears from the historical record), but ‘Legion’ wastes both opportunities.

The Rome scenes mostly consist of Romulus’ scheming father, Iain Glen playing that mix of contempt and manipulation he does so ubiquitously, tediously rattling on. The rest is a thankfully more subdued than usual Ben Kingsley playing a priest who uses trickery to pretend he has magical powers.

Sounds pretty weak, but funnily enough both are two of the better roles here as the main actors are either miscast or stuck with generic supporting parts. Colin Firth in particular, a great actor in his own right, looks simply uncomfortable throughout the film and fares rather atrociously as an action hero.

The gap is more notable thanks to Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai who actually acquits herself nicely as a skilled Indian fighter who is both beautiful and assertive – making her case to be the next Bond girl a convincing argument. Thomas Sangier proves to be rather dull as the boy lead, whilst solid actors like Kevin McKidd, John Hannah and Alexander Siddig are wasted in rote roles ranging from the collaborating supporter to the over-the-top hairy barbarian thug.

As the film heads away from the Rome sets onto location filming, the story picks up a little. There is a level of cheesiness to ‘Legion’ which makes it admittedly more enjoyably entertaining than an all too dour “King Arthur” for example, and this is never more spelled out than the film’s middle segment set around a prison on the island of Capri (although it looks more like Malta). With its high cliffs, “Raiders”-esque sword finding sequence (seems old Julius Caesar had a sword made out of a meteorite), and reliance on real one-on-one action as opposed to massive CG battles, it’s the closest the film gets to engaging its audience with the character’s attempts to escape the stronghold.

Too soon however it’s over and things move to Britain where a CG recreation of Hadrian’s Wall sets up the tedious action of a battle against the British warlord Vortigern (who wears a very theatrical gold mask throughout to show he’s a real baddie). Much of this last act has the film succumbing to the tedious scripting (the usual speeches of honor and fighting for a forgotten ideal) along with poorly choreographed fighting to try and give us some thrills, but ultimately can’t escape either its budget constraints of our lack of empathy with the characters.

Attempts at things like romance between Firth and Rai fall flat on their face as the pair have no chemistry whatsoever, whilst the PG-13 rating notably hampers not the violence but any attempt to create real threats or suspense. The whole Arthurian connection isn’t even mentioned until the closing few minutes coda which not only cheats the ending a little out of it’s brief hint of emotion, but shoves the assorted references to Arthur Pendragon, Merlin, etc. down our throats – right down to the film’s final shot which spells out Excalibur in glowing letters.

Whilst it’s certainly not the worst film to have hit this month, it’s far from a recommend – even if it had gone direct to cable as it should have. ‘Legion’ ultimately adds up to little, a shame considering its few glimpses of a good idea buried somewhere in there deliver brief moments of interest.