THE LAST LEGION tries to ride the coat tails of the Arthurian romances with a new take on who Arthur was, where his sword Excalibur came from, and how the Roman empire involved itself in mixing it all up into a proto-Camelot. And it does all of this without cracking an R rating. That, in the end, is the only thing that recommends it. As a family bonding exercise, you can take the kiddies and everyone can be bored to tears, and possible tantrums, as a family unit.
All good adventure stories, the ones that aren’t relying solely on special effects or whiz-bang action sequences, need a central unifying theme to keep them afloat. LEGION offers a cynical Aurelius (Colin Firth), head of the Imperial Roman Guard, beginning the film by asking what purpose was served by all the troops he’s lost over the years. It’s an excellent question and one that never quite gets around to being answered. Instead Aurelius is tasked with guarding the boy emperor, Romulus (Thomas Sangster, all pinched face and scowls) from the nasty fate, as in assassination, that his five predecessors experienced in the preceding last five years. Unfortunately for everyone, it’s 460 A.D. and right after a properly anachronistic coronation ceremony, the Goths overrun Rome and the Empire falls. As do Romulus’ family, most of the Imperial Guard, and pretty much everyone else. Except Aurelius, who through one surprisingly uninspired feat of derring-do after another, outsmarting Goths and deceitful Romans both, rescues Romulus and his Celtic tutor, Ambrosinus (Ben Kingsley as a knock-off Obi Wan Kenobi, from the bathrobe to the pseudo-mysticism), and heads for Britain, where the eponymous last legion is stationed at Hadrian’s Wall. That would be way north of where the native Britons are being oppressed by Vortgyn (Harry Van Gorkum), a tyrant in a spiffy gold mask who hates Ambrosinus and lusts for the sword Ambrosinus went to Rome to find decades ago. The sword, if you haven’t already guessed, is Excalibur, or at least it will be, and why, after it was made in Britain, it was given to Tiberius is never explained, since it was forged from a stone that fell from British skies and confers upon its owner the status of ruler. It smacks a bit of collaboration with the enemy, but then again, the politics of this film are as muddled as its script, which gambols capriciously from one ci-mentioned feat of derring-do to another with a troubling insouciance about meaningfully filling in the blanks between feats.
There are lots of meet-cutes and die-hards (with a minimum of gore), the former of which are pedestrian in execution and quickly grow tiresome. Howlers come thick and fast. From the Goth conquerer Odoacer (Peter Mullan relishing the menace he evokes at every turn) going from wild-eyed psychopath to astute politician in less than a week,to one of his horde being able to read at a time when few barbarians could, much less read Latin, to no one noticing that the uber-warrior lent by the ambassador from Constantinople is a size 2 and wears great deal of eye-shadow and mascara on the eyes that are clearly visible through the helmet that otherwise covers her head. That Aishwarya Ray as Mira, the size 2 in question, is clunky in her fight scenes does not help. She strikes heroic poses with élan, but it’s as though she was thrown before the cameras before she’d had a chance to learn the choreography of battle well enough for it to become muscle memory. Those scenes, like the film as a whole, suffer from a distinctly uninspired tone. The pace is slow and the acting, except for Mullan, lethargic. Firth, while starting out with a perfunctory world-weariness slips into Mr. Darcy, his iconic role from “Pride and Mira Prejudice,” as he embarks on an ineptly imagined romance with Mira that offers little charm, many clichés, and absolutely no heat.
THE LAST LEGION is not compelling, not mythic, and not exciting. As it’s piece de resistance, it posits the Roman army, the one that occupied Britain by force a few generations before, as the liberators of said island from its homegrown would-be ruler, and setting up one of their own as the lawful king. At a time when life was nasty, brutish, and short, it recreates the Romans, who butchered their way to an empire, as liberators bringing civilization and a better way of life to the poor, backward locals. A dicey sell at best, and one that the script never bothers to justify or even address except to deplore when it’s the Goths invading Rome and doing the same thing. Maybe the point is that turnabout is fair play. A novel approach to the Arthurian legend and the only trace of originality to be found here.