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Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Last Legion

I guess I’m more of a geek than even I thought because whenever I hear the word “Legion” I immediately think of the Legion of Superheroes, those crime-fighting teens from the mid-30th century that I wasted a lot of time and money reading about back in the mid-20th century. The Legion had a kick-ass yellow rocket ship with red fins as its headquarters and its members included cool kids with abilities like telepathy (Saturn Girl), control over magnetism (Cosmic Boy), and the innate knack of shooting electricity out of one’s fingertips and eyes at will (Lightening Lad). Okay, so they didn’t have the most creative names but they were comic book characters and it was the 1960s. Back then, you only got just so much creativity for 12¢ a magazine. Yep. That’s right. 12¢.

It cost a lot more than 12¢ to bring
The Last Legion to the big screen, now playing at the Essex Cinemas. This Legion is not about superheroes, at least not the type that fly around in capes in the 30th century. Instead, The Last Legion tells a tale that stretches a well-known legend to its limits by attempting to connect the Arthurian story about the powerful sword Excalibur to the true-life rule of Romulus Augustus in 5th century Rome. It’s kind of like the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game but it ends up skipping almost all the degrees along the way to get to its final destination.

The story begins a bit slowly and the Velveeta cheesy narration about Excalibur is a bit much. You’d think it was a funeral the way the narrator carries on, gushing and fawning over the sword
and King Arthur the way eulogizers sometimes do. For a minute he was so verklempt I thought it might be the Reverend Al Sharpton saying goodbye to his last cheeseburger before gastric bypass or something.

Finally though we move on to the other King, well, Emperor actually, Romulus (Thomas Sangster; Nanny McPhee), a ten year old in the midst of actually being crowned Emperor and the last surviving heir in the bloodline of Julius Caesar. I guess that means that the secret salad dressing recipe must be about to be passed on to him, but before that can happen, wouldn’t you know it, those barbaric Goths barge in and turn Romulus into an orphan quicker than you can sing “The sun’ll come out tomorrow”.

Fortunately for little Rom (and the audience) he is swept away by one of those loyal guards that pledged “to protect (him) to (his) last breath.” I wish I could find one employee these days that would be willing to make that kind of pledge. And you know that back then they didn’t even have minimum wage laws on their side to make it worth their while, not that minimum wage would cover that. I can’t even get my housekeeper Consuela to promise to quit trimming her toenails in the kitchen on her coffee breaks because it troubles me later that night to find a random toenail in the frosting of the cake I’m serving up as dessert at a dinner party for eight, but I think I’m digressing here… Anyway, Romulus is saved by Aurelius (Colin Firth; also of Nanny McPhee) who looks like he is yearning to find his Bridget Jones’s Diary co-star Hugh Grant standing by his side to help share the embarrassment of wearing the cute little miniskirts that were a part of the uniform of the guards. Instead, he gets Sir Ben Kingsley, who insists on always being called "Sir Ben", which must get on the nerves of everyone on the crew. Sir Ben forgets he may have been knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, but Betty Windsor could no doubt give it second and third thoughts if she ever sees him in Thunderbirds or BloodRayne and it is never too late to rescind the honor. Here he plays the wise Ambrosinus, a teacher, philosopher and sorcerer who is Romulus’ version of Obiwan Kenobi. Naturally, he fights about as well as Richard Simmons, so he gets dragged off to a prison on the Isle of Capri where the marauding Lord Odoacer (Peter Mullan; Children of Men) sentences him, along with Caesar, who he decides to keep alive for the time being in case Romulus becomes useful “bounty” in some way. Unfortunately, neither Rommy nor Sir Ambrosinus designs or creates any stylish calf-length trousers while there. They don’t even take the time to work on their tans either, for goodness sake! So much for being useful.

This being a movie, it’s way past time for a little estrogen injection to counter all the testosterone bubbling up in the film because you know how men are, too much guy stuff and they are afraid
everybody will think they’re gay unless some boobs appear; hence Dr. Bashir from “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” shows up long enough as an ambassador from Constantinople to pawn off one of his helmeted guards as a gift to the little Emperor only so we can find out that the guard is ~voila! ~ hot Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai (Journey Across India) as Mira, the toughest warrior of all the troops. She can slice and dice barbarians like Rachael Ray chops parsley in the morning AND she wakes up in full heavy duty make-up a la Catherine Zeta-Jones in The Legend of Zorro mode.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that before this gets all sorted out that young Romulus is going to stumble upon Excalibur, which we were told in the mumbo jumbo beginning “was forged by a fiery star fallen from the sky and given to the first Caeser”, yada, yada, yada. You can also expect a big run-in with a cranky Wulfila (Kevin McKidd; ironically the star of HBO’s “Rome”). Wulfila was Lord Odoacer’s second in command and really, really, really wanted to kill the little nipper when they first had the chance. Instead, he got stuck with babysitting duties and his face permanently scarred, which has led to a grudge ever since, so you know that’s also got to lead to an inevitable showdown.

But that’s not enough. Oh no. By this time in the story we’ve yet to even meet The Last Legion of the title. You see, this is one big old-fashioned epic that will eventually take Romulus, Aurelius, Mira, and Ambrosinus on a grand journey across the Alps and eventually to Britannia in search of The Last Legion of Rome’s supporters and soldiers and then follow their attempts to rally these now-scattered former gladiators to vanquish yet another threat, a local villian called Vatrenus (Owen Teale; Auto da Fe).

Okay, so there’s lots of sword-fighting and more deaths than in a dozen Friday the 13th movies, but parents can take some comfort in knowing that they are going to see more blood spilled in a Tampax® commercial than in this movie and you know you’re never going to see any blood in a Tampax® commercial. Ever.

The fun part is in the ending, which is eye-rolling and obvious, expected yet just right. If the movie had not given us the dénouement it did this entire 110 minutes might have otherwise felt a bit of a
disappointment. Sure, the history is flooey, the costumes look like they came right out of central wardrobe, and the acting is at times so hammy the Jewish crew needed special dispensation from their Rabbis to work on the set, but if you remind yourself that it is just a fantasy and take it as that you’ll have a good time. It’s no Excalibur (the greatest Arthurian film ever in my humble opinion, so much so I still can ~ and do ~ recite the Charm of Making at the slightest provocation: Anal Nathrach, udhras beothadh, dochioll dian fe!*), but The Last Legion is a clever enough prequel to that later story about Excalibur that it is thoroughly enjoyable on its own if you aren’t looking for a fact-based historical drama.

*Gaelic translation to modern Irish: Come hither, serpent, heed my urgings. Hasten, you wild wyrm!

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