Before sitting down to watch Mongol, a Russian effort—reportedly the first of three parts—chronicling the life of Genghis Khan, I skimmed through the dude’s Wikipedia entry in order to refamiliarize myself with his world-conquering bio. The movie itself, as it turns out, plays like that summary writ extremely large (and super-bloody). Concise to a fault, it covers only the early years, from his father’s death by poisoning when he was nine until his first major military victory in 1206; indeed, the word “Genghis” never appears in the film, in which the future emperor (“Khan” is a title, not a name—see also “Christ”) is known only by his birth name, Temujin. But despite running over two hours, Mongol fairly races through the edited highlights: Temujin’s selection of his child bride (played in adulthood by Chuluun); his capture and enslavement by a rival tribe and subsequent harrowing escape; his marriage, followed almost immediately by a daring rescue attempt when his wife is kidnapped by enemies; his split and rivalry with a childhood friend and fellow warrior (Sun Honglei); his ultimate consolidation of numerous separate factions throughout northeast Asia, etc.
Directed by Sergei Bodrov, a once-promising filmmaker who’s churned out nothing but dreck since his superb 1996 Tolstoy adaptation Prisoner of the Mountains, Mongol dutifully serves up majestic views of snow-covered steppes in between the requisite impalements and eviscerations. (The film’s three lengthy battle sequences feature plenty of that CGI arterial spray pioneered by Steven Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan.) What it sorely lacks, however, is a charismatic central performance. Gladiator was no less big and dumb, but Russell Crowe’s single-minded ferocity made it thrilling; here, we get the famously impassive Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano (Last Life in the Universe, Café Lumière), who has a terrific face but can’t ever seem to be bothered to emote. Consequently, Mongolmakes the fabled Genghis Khan, at least at this stage of his life, seem ruthless but dull, like the ancient militaristic equivalent of a really good tax attorney. That this rote, by-the-numbers epic was nominated for last year’s foreign-language Oscar, in lieu of bold and challenging work from Romania (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) and Mexico (Silent Light), is a sorry testament to what the clueless folks on that committee value.