Warner Bros. // 2007 // 125 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // October 13th, 2008
The extraordinary early years of a man who would conquer the world.
Temudgin: "Someday, I will kill you."
Evil Jerk: "I will kill you first."
Nine-year-old Temudgin's (Odnyam Odsuren) life is a reasonably happy one. He has a close relationship with his powerful father, he has just chosen a girl that he will marry within the next few years, and he has a very promising future. All of that changes when Temudgin's father is killed by a rival clan of warriors. They intend to kill Temudgin, too, but he escapes and lives in the wilderness for all of his teenage years. When he returns (and is played by Tadanobu Asano, Tokyo Zombie), he vows to have vengeance on his enemies, to find his true love and marry her, and to rightfully restore his place as a great Mongol warrior. Indeed, Temudgin would one day go by a name that would be known around the world: Genghis Khan.
When the 2007 Academy Award nominations were announced, I was surprised to discover that I had not seen any of the Best Foreign Film nominees. Slowly but surely, I'm catching up on some of those titles. Now I've had a chance to see Mongol, the action-packed biopic of Genghis Khan. Is it a film worth checking out? Yes. Is it a great film? No, not really. Mongol is a very straightforward and traditional biopic, heavy on dramatic turning points, moderately pretentious and self-important, light on symbolic images, and completely free of subtext.
This is a story about a kid who lost his daddy, grew up to be one tough dude, vengefully sought out his enemies, and then kicked the butt of the world. That's all there is to it. Nothing more, nothing less. It's presented in a fairly engaging manner, and is professionally crafted enough to make me understand why Academy voters were pleased by it. I enjoyed watching it, but it there isn't quite enough substance or entertainment value to make me want to go back and experience the whole thing again anytime soon. It's a bit like reading a few chapters in a high school history book about Genghis Khan. You think to yourself, "Well that was informative and kind of interesting, and I'm glad to know it. Say, what's for dinner? Also, when is the baseball game on?"
Mongol is most successful as a historical document. The film really does create an authentic-feeling 12th Century atmosphere that I was completely drawn into. Recently, I was tasked with reviewing a season of the BBC television program Robin Hood. That show also takes place in the 12th Century, but there was never a single moment in which I actually felt like I was watching 12th Century individuals doing 12th Century stuff. Mongol immediately convinced me that these people were exactly who they said they were. The dialogue remains free of modern inflections or verbal anachronisms that infect so many historical epics, but it also does a nice job of avoiding the sort of puffy speechifying that plagues just as many films of this sort. The costumes and locations are very well-structured, and we are given a good look at an ancient culture that is never softened or apologized for.
The two finest performances here come from the child and the adult playing Temudgin. As a young man, the role is played by Odnyam Odsuren, who turns in a very mature and engaging performance. We are surprised by the frankness, wisdom, and casual macho attitude of this child, who has obviously been raised from a very young age to "act like a man." The transition from Odsuren to actor Asano Tadanobu (playing the adult version) is seamless, and Tadanobu carries things very nicely from there. His primary mode here is "fierce warrior," but he is permitted to be a good deal more complex than the average ancient brute (I'm looking at you, King Leonidas).
A solid transfer is an asset here. The film has a dry and slightly dirty color scheme...lots of browns here sprinkled with occasional doses of red blood. While I'm not a huge fan of the look of the film, it's captured in a pretty vibrant way by this hi-def transfer, which has deep black and well-balanced flesh tones. However, a few of the battle sequences are a bit grainy, and it's hard to tell whether or not this is intentional. Sound is pretty good, though not as aggressive or pounding as you would expect an action film about Genghis Khan to be.
I mentioned that the film works well as a historical document. So it does. It doesn't work quite so well as a dramatic story, spinning through familiar scenes in a familiar manner. These scenes may or may not be historically accurate, but they are still clichés. The revenge drama portion in particular is quite predictable, and the element of family drama introduced during the film's second act doesn't really offer anything terribly interesting, either. I'm also a little lukewarm towards the action scenes (the exciting finale aside), which are filmed in a jerky handheld camera style, complete with obligatory slo-mo sword fighting.
The complete lack of extras on the disc is a liability, too. Yes, we get one of those dopey digital copies. Like many of my fellow judges, this sort of extra is of no value to me, and I imagine that many viewers might feel the same. Besides, why on earth would anyone want to watch an epic film like Mongol on their iPhone? I'd trade this digital copy in a heartbeat for a few featurettes or an audio commentary.
Mongol is worth seeing, but I would recommend a rental over a purchase. It's engaging enough, but I have a feeling that this one will wind up collecting a good deal of dust as time goes by.
You think I should give Genghis Khan a little prison time? No way, man. I saw what happened to the last guy who tried to convict Genghis Khan. I want to have children someday, so that's not happening. Not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2008 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p Widescreen)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Mongolian)
Running Time: 125 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Digital Copy