This cheesefest is exactly the movie you’d expect from a director (Doug Lefler) with a couple of Xena: Warrior Princess episodes on his resume. That, however, is not entirely a bad thing; it suits the screenplay by Jez and Tom Butterworth (Birthday Girl) beautifully, and the entire concept of The Last Legion.
No, this is not a good movie by any definition I’m aware of, but it is a fair dose of campy entertainment made all the more entertaining by virtue of the fact that no one involved seems to realize just how silly it all is. That’s perhaps not surprising when you’re dealing with a movie that has an ad campaign—“Before King Arthur there was Excalibur”—that reads like a factual statement: Before Antoine Fuqua screwed up the Arthurian tales with King Arthur (2004), John Boorman made a much better movie that tackled the story in terms of Wagnerian opera called Excalibur (1981), which you’d be far better off watching than either King Arthur or The Last Legion. (Even accidentally invoking Boorman’s film is exceedingly unwise when your movie’s going to suffer by comparison.)
What we have here is a vague attempt to remonkey the origins of the King Arthur legend by bringing in some folderol about young Romulus Augustus Caesar (Thomas Sangster, whom we’ve already seen in one of these dithering ancient world operas, Tristan + Isolde). There are no prizes for guessing who this young nipper ultimately turns out to be. The same goes for the “secret” identity (“I go by many names”) of Ben Kingsley (having a lot of fun of the kind not served in a kosher household) as the boy’s teacher-protector-quasi-magician, Ambrosinus. All this really means is that it affords the movie lots of excuses to engage in budgetary-challenged battles of the largely bloodless PG-13 stripe with folks in smelly looking leather suits and a few pounds of crepe hair clanging swords and saying “Arrgh” a lot.
Every conceivable genre cliché is trotted out like performing offspring being foisted on long-suffering guests at a dinner party. In fact, The Last Legion doesn’t worry too much about genre boundaries when it comes to clichés, meaning that heroic Aurelius (Colin Firth looking quite perplexed to find himself dressed in leather and window curtains) and the beauteous Mira (Aishwarya Rai, Bride and Prejudice) “meet cute” (he thinks she’s a guy). It’s the sort of thing where the bad guys are very bad, the good guys are very good, and almost no one’s name is pronounced the same way twice. My personal favorite in this last capacity is the villain named Odoacer (Peter Mullan, Children of Men), whose name usually sounds like “Odorwhacker,” suggesting he might go into partnership with Dr. Scholls in the deodorizing shoe business.
There’s also a bad guy named Batiatus (Nonso Anozie), who appears to be wearing Charley Boorman’s gold mask from Excalibur (somehow remonkeyed to look like it has a ‘70s porn-star mustache). When Batiatus gets his highly combustible comeuppance and the mask comes off, it’s hard to determine if its purpose was to obscure an unfortunate skin condition or if he’d unwisely superglued the thing to his face. Of course, by that time the viewer may be so distracted by the papier-mâché mini Stonehenge, the papier-mâché tree and the pathetic faux-rock waterfall (they’d make a swell 18th hole on a putt-putt course) that all thought processes have ceased.
This presupposes that the unintentionally funny dialogue hadn’t done that much earlier. I was personally partial to the Brits who just wanted “to be farmers and grow fat,” causing me to wonder whether a crop of fat was in any way related to Mr. Zappa moving to Montana soon to raise himself a crop of dental floss. Still, the accidental sexual innuendo—usually involving Ben Kingsley wanting to give the boy “his Greek lesson” or Colin Firth wanting to show people his sword—are probably the real winners. All right, so it ain’t art—or even very good—but taken in a certain frame of mind, it can be perversely entertaining. Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action violence.