The word “epic” gets thrown around a lot these days in regards to movies, from Internet message-board users proclaiming the “epicness” of the latest comic-book movie to its bizarre inclusion in the American Film Institute’s recent “America’s Ten Greatest Films in Ten Classic Genres” list (never mind that “horror” was nowhere to be found). Epic has become such a buzzword that its meaning would be nearly lost—that is, if it weren’t for the glut of films of recent vintage that fall under the classification’s umbrella.
From Braveheart (1995), Gladiator (2000), to the Lord of the Rings films (2001-2003), to the man who can kill any trend, Uwe Boll, and his In the Name of the King (2007), there is no shortage of films featuring sweeping shots of snowcapped mountains, large-scale bloodshed captured with a high-speed shutter, and a protagonist giving a rousing speech on horseback just before the film’s climax.
It’s this staleness that allows Russian director Sergei Bodrov’s Mongol to succeed by contrast, though this isn’t to say the film doesn’t occasionally fall into a few of the genre’s traps. Actually, it’s the feeling of sameness that’s the film’s biggest drawback, something that’s simply inherent in this type of movie, and what keeps Mongol from being truly great.
This doesn’t keep Bodorov from trying to buck such preconceptions. Sure, there’s plenty of machismo, and the high-speed shutter makes an appearance during action scenes (though thankfully lacking a lot of the close-up shaky-cam nonsense that plagues most actioners these days). There are also a couple of grand—and extremely blood-spattered battle sequences (it’s rated R “for sequences of bloody warfare” for a reason)—but thankfully, no trite, rousing speeches. However, the action isn’t what carries the film.
Instead, Bodrov’s film is a character study, purportedly depicting the rise to power of Genghis Khan (Tadanobu Asano, Zatoichi), from the son of a betrayed leader, to slave, to ruler. The film has come under fire from some corners for its faulty telling of history. Despite revisionism being nothing new in the world of movies, this isn’t a problem to begin with, since the film is more about the man behind the legend than the man behind the facts.
The film begins with Genghis Khan at the age of 9—then named Temudjin—when he first chooses his wife, Börte (Khulan Chuluun). It’s their relationship that pushes the film forward and sets into motion every aspect of the 20-plus years the movie covers in the life of Temudjin. In essence, the movie is a rags, to worse rags, to slightly better rags, to riches story, involving Temudjin’s search for vengeance against the man (Amadu Mamadakov) who betrayed his father (Ba Sen). It also follows Temudjin’s relationship with his best friend, Jamuhka (Honglei Sun).
But it’s the relationship with his wife that remains the one constant throughout and forms the foundation of the film. Thankfully, it’s handled maturely and realistically, creating the greatest humanizing aspect of Temudjin’s personality, something often missing from this type of film.
Fortunately, in covering those two decades, Bodorov is smart enough to realize that “epic” doesn’t necessarily translate into “long.” Yes, the film moves at a very methodical pace, but at 126 minutes, Mongol never feels like it’s overstayed its welcome. By covering so much time in a little over two hours, much of the characters and their lives are sketched in. This need for audience interpretation will make Mongol a tough sell for most—not to mention the fact that it has subtitles. And though the film is generally handled with a deft touch, there are times when the results can feel rushed—like with the film’s big climax, which just sort of comes out of nowhere.
However, the film is visually sharp and Bordorov makes the most of its stunning locations (it would be difficult to make the locations used look uninteresting). In some alternate universe, Mongol might be the thinking man’s summer blockbuster. If it’s not quite that, Mongol being a nice alternative to the usual summer fare will have to do for now. Rated R for sequences of bloody warfare.