“The Last Legion” isn’t half bad, but you’d never know that from its half-hearted promotional campaign. The cheesy-looking TV spots, lobby posters and newspaper ads appear to promise a low-rent “300” — a Wal-Mart special, perhaps, reduced to “125.” At its infrequent best, however, this ungainly international co-production more closely resembles an old-fashioned Saturday matinee action-adventure. Pic is seriously hampered by glaring inconsistencies of tone and intent, and often feels like a series of highlights carved out of a much longer epic. But cable and homevid viewers might enjoy the fitfully rousing hodgepodge after it completes a token theatrical run.
The episodic screenplay, based in part on a historical novel by co-scripter Valerio Manfredi, pivots on the misadventures of 12-year-old Romulus Augustus (Thomas Sangster), a direct heir to Julius Caesar.
Shortly after he’s crowned emperor of the crumbling Roman Empire in 476 A.D., young Romulus is in short order orphaned, deposed and exiled by the hordes of Odoacer (Peter Mullan), a Goth usurper.
Aurelius (Colin Firth), one of the few military commanders to survive the barbarian invasion, leads his faithful men — and a sword-swinging Byzantine beauty named Mira (Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai) — on a rescue mission to free Romulus and his enigmatic tutor, Ambrosinus (Ben Kingsley), from a fortress on the Isle of Capri.
But the good guys are betrayed upon their return to Rome. So they venture off to Britannia to seek help from the last remaining Roman Legion loyal to the young emperor, all the while pursued by the bad guys and threatened by an even worse tyrant.
The chief problem with “The Last Legion” stems from the filmmakers’ apparent inability to decide what kind of pic they wanted to make, and what sort of audience they wanted to target. There are echoes of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Kidnapped” and “Treasure Island,” suggesting that helmer Doug Lefler and his collaborators may have envisioned purposefully retro, family-friendly fare. (Another indication: Violent scenes obviously have been tweaked to remove detailed depictions of carnage.)
In a handful of other scenes, however, there are hints of tongue-in-cheek send-up, particularly whenever Firth laces his straight-faced heroics with a smidgen of “Indiana Jones”-style jokiness. These modestly clever touches are a welcome contrast to the inadvertently comical scenes where characters posture and pontificate in the stilted manner of standard sword-and-sandal (or sword-and-sorcery) B-pics and TV dramas.
As Ambrosinus, a cryptic sage who serves as Yoda to Romulus’ Luke Skywalker, Kingsley must deliver most of the faux profundities that litter the script. He also has to impose some sense of consistency on a character whose abilities are never entirely clear: During a climactic battle, Ambrosinus is able to toss — goodness gracious! — great balls of fire. But the sudden display of this convenient talent likely will make some viewers wonder why he couldn’t have used it earlier.
It doesn’t help that “The Last Legion,” filmed on locations in Tunisia and Slovakia, boasts production values that reflect a severely limited budget. On the other hand, Sangster makes an engagingly plucky impression, Firth does the derring-do with self-assured grace, Rai is extremely easy on the eyes and Kingsley is, despite the aforementioned obstacles, effortlessly authoritative. The fight scenes are sufficiently exciting, and the pic overall is just good enough to make you wish it were a lot better.