Warner Bros. // 2007 // 125 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // October 31st, 2008
Greatness comes to those who take it.
A multinational collaboration historical action film about the early life of Genghis Khan, and not one person shakes their fist into the sky and screams "KHAAAAAN"? What is this the world coming to?
History knows him as Genghis Khan, but before he became a warlord, young Genghis was Temudjin (Odnyam Odsuren), a small boy from a nomadic Mongolian tribe. After his father and clan leader is murdered, Temudjin's life takes a dramatic downward turn as his rightful place as ruler is usurped. Sentenced to a life in exile and slavery, Temudjin spends his youth on the run from armed warriors looking to put a blade into his back before he dares have the chance to grow into maturity and seek revenge.
Flash forward a few years, and Temudjin (Tadanobu Asano, Ichi the Killer) is a stoic figure who inspires confidence in those around him. Having thrown off the chains of bondage and found love in the form of his betrothed wife, Temudjin seeks to unite all the nomadic and wild tribes in Mongolia under a single banner: his. Odds are it might involve some killing.
A collaboration between German, Kazakh, Russian, and Mongolian filmmakers, Mongol was the Academy Award submission for Kazakhstan in 2007; that's nifty considering the landlocked country is not particularly known for its international cinema, let alone big-budget Hollywood-style historical epics. Conceived of as the first film in a trilogy about Genghis Khan and his conquests, Mongol covers the early years of young Temudjin, prior to his Genghis-ification and global domination. Much is done here to lay the future groundwork for a ripe franchise to emerge, but as a standalone film, Mongol is solidly average, alternating evenly between exceptional cinema and cliché.
As a historically accurate period piece, Mongol is technically more accurate than Genghis Khan in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, but only just. Despite the Mongols holding a hefty twenty percent of the world's real estate during the height of their empire, it seems they were not fond of the reading and writing so much. The entire history of the Mongols is based on oral tradition, and very little reliable history exists to write a screenplay around. With little in the way of crib notes, Mongol is an "artistic" retelling of the warlord's early years, with more creative liberty taken than arrows fired from horseback. This is not to suggest that Mongol is full of lies, but strict adherence to detail is not its modus operandi. The film is laden with magic realism, quasi-religious iconography and imagery, and an almost godlike reverence to young Temudjin, as if the characters around him know in their hearts that he will be the man who conquers the world, so they'd best stay on his good side. These little touches of reverence and mysticism are a gamble, but surprisingly satisfying when taken in small doses, peppered throughout the film as seasoning and never overused.
Mongol is a satisfying film in its best moments, and at other times merely average. There is little amiss with the story or delivery, but it lacks anything to elevate it into a "must see" cinematic experience. The script is pedantic and straightforward enough; we spend two hours watching a young boy get kicked around by his father's murderers, and then he goes and gets his revenge on the world. Yep, saw that coming. And, oh, his wife got kidnapped, but love triumphs along with a sword in a daring rescue. It's all very Braveheart. Calling it an emotional wasteland might be a bit on the harsh side, but Mongol is at times quite parching as it tries to find some connection with audiences beyond its impressive visuals.
At least Mongol looks great. The sparse, sprawling landscape (shot on location in Mongolia, Kazakhstan and China) is majestically captured, and large portions of the film are devoted to horses running through the steppes, as if scooped right from a Tourism Mongolia video. Russian director Sergei Bodrov (Prisoner of the Mountains) does a strong job putting together a visually striking film, full of distance shots and contrast. Battle sequences are steeped in impressive-looking CGI blood that flows like water, making for some impressively-conceived sequences of carnage. It might be a bit thin on originality, but there are no complaints here.
Once the landscape shots and battle sequences end, however, Mongol gets a bit shakier. The film struggles with its slower moments, as if unsure how to proceed next. Depending on the film he is cast in, Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano's stone-faced delivery is either angelically calm or psychopathic, and we thankfully get both here -- the role requires it. It is a bit strange to see a Japanese guy cast as Genghis Khan, but hey, if a Chinese girl can be a geisha (Memoirs of a Geisha), then a Japanese pretty boy can be a Mongolian warlord. Hell, put a furry hat on me and shaggy hair, and I'd make a passable Mongolian. But I digress. Temudjin is calm and regal in his mistreatment, content to bide his time and plan his eventual triumph, and it gives the character a monastic-like serenity. Khan is certainly a fascinating enough historical figure to justify more exploration. If there is any depth to be had in Mongol it is here in the brooding character development -- not particularly profound, original, or deep, but you take what you can get.
Mongol looks good on DVD, albeit not quite as nice as it must look in HD. Black levels are solid but not quite as deep as one might like to see. Colors are saturated and balanced, leaning slightly cool, with strong yellows and silvers throughout. Detail is impressive, with no noticeable compression artifacts present. The audio comes in a 5.1 Surround in Mongolian -- what other language were you expecting? -- and is uproariously active, with the rustling grass and thundering hoofs of the Mongolian steppes echoing accurately across all five channels. Bass response is adequate, and the score is a dramatic rumbling of throat chanting and suitably upbeat action themes. Those who opt for the SD-version of Mongol should find the technical experience more than satisfying.
Extras are virtually nil, with no supplements to be had beyond the inclusion of a code that allows viewers to redeem a downloadable version of Mongol onto their PC for later viewing. While this is a good idea in principal, the stringent technical restrictions and DRM thrust upon the copy make it all but impractical -- no Mac support, no iPod support, paper-thin portable media support, Windows Media only, etc. At that point, you might as well just put the physical DVD into your laptop or PC if you feel the need to watch it on a computer.
It takes a big set of iron spheres to make a film as the first in a trilogy without having any idea if the public at large even wants more films. Mongol in this regard is both a success and a failure, since it sets up quite nicely for future films, but also shortchanges itself in doing so. There is much to tell about Genghis Khan and his life, and we only get but a few short formative years in Mongol, but parts of the narrative feel disjointed as a result, as if somebody simply took his life and divided it into thirds.
Mongol at times feels broken, incomplete, and rushed, as if the writers were torn as to how much material to include in this first film, and what to leave for sequels that may never emerge. Some parts of the film are surprisingly detailed and intricate, while other parts leap and bound from scene to scene over the space of a decade in seemingly random order. There are plenty of sequences laden with character development and historical detail that make the film a worthy experience, but these are haphazardly sandwiched between action fan-satisfying battle sequences, regardless of whether the two scenes occur decades apart or not, or make contextual sense.
Take for example one part in the film where Temudjin is happily frolicking in a field with his wife and children, happy as a clam, then suddenly says to his wife, "Okay, see you in a few years, going to war now." And he does. This kind of schizophrenic narrative muddles the third act of the film something fierce.
At its worst, Mongol is an unremarkable historical action film that borrows heavily from more successful features, but lush cinematography, impressively bloody battles, and a brooding hero make Mongol worth a look. There are more triumphs than failures here, definitely enough to justify a rental.
Looks like there's hope for those beloved German/Russian/Mongolian/Kazakh action film collaborations after all.
As a standalone film, Mongol is adequate, but the franchise may have more worth once the sequels emerge.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Mongolian)
Running Time: 125 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Digital Copy
* Official Site