Colin Firth is first and foremost an actor. He is not a movie star in the typical sense. The 52-year old actor has films like The King's Speech, A Single Man and many more dramatic movies to his name. Then, there are the departure films, like 2007's The Last Legion.
It's 460 A.D., and the Roman Empire is struggling through some perilous times. After years away from Rome and Italy and all its issues, veteran soldier Aurelius Antoninus (Firth) is being called back to the city. He has been tasked with a dangerous mission, protecting the recently appointed emperor, Romulus (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), a teenage boy. With a legion of loyal soldiers, Aurelius settles in, preparing anything he can to protect the boy emperor. Multiple factions are working against the boy though, including a Goth leader (Peter Mullan), who wants nothing more than to turn Rome on its side and take power. When the coup-like attack comes, Aurelius must turn to his most trusted men while also relying on one last legion of Roman troops in Britannia.
Despite the generally lukewarm reviews and less than impressive Netflix rating, I went into this historical epic with somewhat high hopes. Director Doug Lefler has crafted an enjoyable epic story that at its best feels like an old-fashioned epic from the 1950s and 1960s. It runs only 102 minutes so we're not talking a 3-hour mega epic here, just a solid, fast-moving story. There is something appealing about that throwback quality, especially one set in the declining years of the Roman Empire. Lefler filmed 'Legion' in Slovakia and Tunisia, giving his story an exotic feel to it that genuinely gives the impression of a moving story that has characters all over the known world. I also liked composer Patrick Doyle's score, big and booming like an epic demands. It's the good guys and bad guys, and there's no room for that messy middle ground.
Unfortunately, that throwback quality only goes so far. For me, that point was about the 55-minute mark. The entire movie covers a ridiculous amount of ground -- more on that later -- in a movie that doesn't even come close to the two-hour mark. For the first hour of the movie, that isn't a problem. The pacing is actually a benefit as Firth's Aurelius and a small group of soldiers protects Romulus apparently all over the Empire. Then out of the blue, Aurelius and Co. decide they need to go to Britannia (that's England) to seek the aid of the last remaining loyal legion of Roman troops, the Ninth Legion. That's fair. A legion of troops would be helpful in putting down a coup. But once arriving in Britannia, Aurelius and his followers must now battle a Britannic leader who has long sought the sword that will one day "rule the Empire." Basically, the story throws out the first half of the movie, going down a completely different road. Too bad, the first hour was highly enjoyable.
That's the biggest issue hamstringing this otherwise enjoyable flick. It just tries to do far too much. The final battle between Aurelius, his followers, the lost legion, and the forces of the diabolically evil Vortgyn (Harry Van Gorkum) ends, and that's it. A final scene connects the story to a well-known story in history and literature -- no real spoilers here, it does come as a pleasant surprise -- but in the process basically disregards the entire first half of the movie. Reading up on the movie, it seems it was originally intended to be anywhere between three and four hours. Can we believe that? Who knows, but a little extra meat on the bone sure couldn't have hurt. That way, it could have played like a two-part miniseries at least. That's wishful thinking though. The movie is what we have, not what it could have been.
A saving grace is the casting, starting with Firth. Far from his typical role, Firth represents himself well as the aging veteran who can still hold his own on the battlefield. I was especially impressed with how he handled the action scenes, more than holding his own. Ben Kingsley looks to be having some fun as Ambrosinus, a philosopher, teacher and warrior who works as Romulus' guardian/protector. Indian beauty Aishwarya Rai plays Mira, a warrior from Constantinople traveling with Romulus. Aurelius' Roman soldiers include Rupert Friend, Nonso Anozie and Owen Teale. Before being discarded at the movie's halfway point, Mullan is a solid villain with Kevin McKidd capably taking the reins as scarred Goth warrior, Wulfila, who would like nothing more than to kill the boy emperor. Also look for John Hannah as a Roman senator with a long history working with Aurelius.
For the most part, I liked this flick. There are times the action/violence feels toned down -- like 'Legion' was going for a PG-13 rating more than an R rating -- but the battle scenes are fun, exciting and fast-moving in a bloodless way. The final battle in Britannia is similarly epic, but I keep coming back to the somewhat disjointed feel of the story. The movie struggles to find any sort of rhythm, and that ends up being a major issue.
The Last Legion (2007): ** 1/2 /****