A Roman army legion was typically comprised of between three and six thousand troops, so credit Spanish producer José Magán with some enterprising chutzpah in calling his first directorial feature “The Legion.” More or less to battles-of-antiquity epics like “300” and “Troy” what cheap 1980s Italian knockoffs like the “Ator” movies were to “Conan the Barbarian” — substituting the proverbial “cast of thousands” with casts of, well, several — this uninspired adventure tracks a lone soldier across arduous country in an attempt to save his imperiled first-century A.D. cavalry.
Clearly a means here of approaching a particular action genre while drastically reducing its scale, this conceit might still make for an exciting tale. But some handsome scenery aside, the film mostly feels like a dull compilation of heroic clichés that gains little spark from mediocre mano-a-mano fight sequences, even less from guest stars Mickey Rourke and Bai Ling’s campy extended cameos. Arriving on U.S. streaming platforms May 8, it’s an exercise too turgid to offer much guilty pleasure, though the tin-eared dialogue does cough up a few unintentional laughs.
In 62 A.D. Parthia (now Iran), Emperor Nero’s invading army has gotten itself into a pickle under General Paetus (Joaquim de Almeida). He’s let his men get trapped in a valley where they’re surrounded by enemy forces, who’ll kill them if they don’t freeze or starve to death first. Advisor Marcus (Vladimir Kulich) thinks their only possible salvation is to send a messenger through “impossible” terrain to reach General Corbulo (Rourke) and beg for reinforcements. He’s got just the man in mind. “What’s his name?” Paetus asks. “They call him … the Rebel!,” Marcus responds, signaling that Pedro Santamaria and Carmen Ballesteros’ screenplay will humorlessly embrace many a howler.
Never mind that the hero’s name is actually Noreno (Lee Partridge), or that he scarcely seems the rebellious type. In fact, he’s quite doggedly obedient to his superiors, which is helpful given that he’s accepting what’s basically a suicide mission. After his two assigned travel companions are swiftly killed fending off Persian attackers, Noreno scales a sheer cliff “Free Solo”-style in the most impressive sequence here, then faces other perils primarily of the human kind.
En route, he rescues a damsel in distress (Marta Castellvi), is rescued by an early Christian (Bosco Hogan) and experiences somewhat confusingly pointless flashbacks. He also narrates his own saga in a voiceover mix of hoary homilies (“No enemy is greater than oneself”) and vague self-actualization (“On this path of desperation and death, I seem to be alive for the first time”).
Lead actor Partridge’s sole significant prior credit appears to have been a seemingly unreleased Mischa Barton horror movie (“The Malevolent”) Magán produced a few years ago. This film’s many basic flaws aren’t his fault, but there’s no evidence that he has the charisma or even physical grace to carry what’s largely a one-man action-adventure show. Indeed, far from being a strapping, hardy specimen, he often looks in his animal pelts like the runt barbarian most likely to be eaten by a bear. More apt are a raft of pursuers recruited in large part from the stuntmen of TV series “Vikings,” and despite a goulash of multinational accents, other support performances are competent.
An exception is Rourke, who regularly stops the film in its rather plodding tracks with scenes in which he delivers a mixture of historical encapsulation, purple prose, banalities (including the evergreen “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger”) and apparent improv to a bust of Nero — all while wearing an eyepatch over one peeper and gender-bending glamour makeup on the other.
Yes, he’s supposed to be a Roman general, but his delivery recalls the myth of Tony Curtis saying “Yonder lies da castle of me faddah” in a 1950s costume epic. Elsewhere, Rourke’s out-there idiosyncrasies have been entertaining, sometimes even inspired. But he’s mistaken in thinking his goofing off is automatic gold, like most Late Period Brando. Here, we just get the spectacle of a lazy actor who can’t be bothered to take anything seriously anymore, and rather than spicing things up simply robs “The Legion” of what little dignity it has. Once Bai Ling finally shows up as Corbulo’s chiding mistress, we get two actors slumming so disinterestedly, they both make numerous pronunciation gaffes. One shudders to think what the discarded takes were like.
Underwhelming as these contributions are, with poor writing and pedestrian direction also hobbling the whole, “The Legion” nonetheless benefits from decent production values. Jordi Longan’s original score is professional if conventionally bombastic, though a couple interludes of uncredited emo-type rock balladry are painfully incongruous. The widescreen lensing credited to no less than five cinematographers makes the most of some spectacular settings in, apparently, Spain and Southern California. Sweeping drone shots may one day grow as tired as zoom-lensing, but for now they can still make many an otherwise-cheesy enterprise look fleetingly impressive.