June 27, 2008

Wrath of Khan Lacks Insight, Focus

By Frank Gabrenya, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio

Jun. 27--The German-Russian production Mongol needed a more intriguing title, perhaps Genghis Khan: The Early Years.

Immediately you'd be hooked. The 13th-century warlord is one of those fierce figures of world myth about whom we know so little and imagine so much.

A nonromantic epic about how a son of nomads became the unifying commander of an empire that blanketed most of Asia sounds intellectually arresting and viscerally potent.

Mongol largely proves otherwise.

The first chapter in a proposed trilogy, it's loaded with the violent clash of armies and balanced by a sentimental love story, but it often rambles over miles of empty terrain, slowly telling a fairly simple and obvious story that, for all its foreign DNA, marches in a Hollywood cadence.

Russian director Sergei Bodrov genuflects to modern device in the opening moments, set in 1192, when the adult hero is held captive in a rainy province.

Suddenly, the movie flashes back 20 years to find 9-year-old Temudgin traveling with his father to pick a bride.

Why the tease of a prison scene that won't come up again for 90 minutes? Fear of viewer impatience, I suppose.

Young Temudgin meets young Borte, who invites him to choose her, although the choice has no political advantage for either tribe. Soon after, Temudgin's father is poisoned, and his tribe is taken over by the disloyal Targutai.

Because tradition forbids murdering children, Temudgin is made a prisoner until he is old enough to be slaughtered.

Instead, he escapes, meets a prince named Jamukha who becomes his blood brother, is captured again, escapes again and eventually finds and marries Borte, who is herself taken prisoner.

The script probably takes its facts from various Khan histories and legends, but it plays like a confused narrative that can't decide what story to tell.

Eventually, the adult Temudgin exacts revenge on his enemies, rallying the warring tribes into a fearsome army and becoming -- slowly -- the towering Genghis Khan. Which is where the movie ends, with an implied "to be continued."

Before Bodrov runs out of reversals of fortune, much combat action ensues, with men on horses charging at each other with curved swords.

Blades flash, and splatterings of blood appear to briefly hang in the air, suggesting that all or most of them were added later by computer.

The love story of Temudgin and Borte gives Mongol some surprising tenderness, but then its hero isn't the fierce warrior of legend but a reasonable guy forced into a military role by the treachery of others.

Mongol's Khan falls into a long line of famous conquerors made sympathetic by movies about them (Abel Gance's Napoleon, Oliver Stone's Alexander, maybe Vin Diesel's forthcoming Hannibal the Conqueror). Weren't any of these men driven by a lust for power?

The multi-Asian cast (Japanese, Chinese, Mongolian) gives the principal roles authenticity, and the camera delivers a feast of sweeping landscapes.

Yet the veering nature of the narrative and the single dimensions of most of the characters make watching Mongol a struggle.

And this is only a third of the story.

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