Sounding more weary than wise, Ambrosinus (Ben Kingsley) observes mist rising from a grim horizon and pronounces, “The legend begins beneath these dark hills.” That would be the legend of Excalibur, again. This time, the story of the sword goes back to the time of the Roman emperors, the first few skipped over in order to get to the moment when it’s hidden away with the most recently dead Caesar, waiting to be found by the next “true” leader.
He is Romulus Augustus (Thomas Sangster), just 12 years old when he’s crowned, celebrated but not very well protected by his father Orestes (Iain Glen). Apparently jealous that the boy’s earnest teacher Ambrosinus has, in his own words, as much care for your son as you have,” dad sends him away just when he shouldn’t. As Ambrosinus outlines during the first few minutes of The Last Legion, Rome in 460 A.D. is feeling particularly threatened, and “calling back her best and bravest to defend her borders.” Ambrosinus is very bright indeed, a believer in destiny and a sorcerer with some investment in the sword and its eventual wielder, King Arthur. His departure leaves Romulus and his family vulnerable in ways they can’t imagine.
Though the boy is assigned a new guardian, the noble warrior Aurelius (Colin Firth), the barbarians are, as it were, at the gate. As soon as Romulus is made Caesar, the Visigoths, headed by a particularly venal sort named Wulfila (Kevin McKidd), storm the palace and murder Romulus’ parents before his eyes. Appropriately upset, the boy follows his mother’s dying words (“Save yourself”) as best he can, stabbing his gonnabe kidnapper in the thigh and dashing out the window with crown in hand. Still, he’s subdued, chained, and brought before the Goths’ gnarly leader, Odoacer (excellent Peter Mullan).
Though Aurelius was conveniently knocked out during the assault on the palace, he wakes to a sense of overwhelming guilt, insisting that he and his team go forth and recover the child. The team is ridiculously multi-culti, including a large black man, Batiatus (Nonso Anozie) and eager white kid Demetrius (Rupert Friend), not to mention the most exotic member, Mira (Aishwarya Rai), who explains that in India, she “was taught to fight like our ancestors,” and now loyally serves Byzantine ambassador Theodorus Andronikos (Alexander Siddig). Mostly, she impresses her male cohorts with her martial arts, sword-wielding, and knife-throwing prowess. With colorful eye shadow and dramatic mascara, the girl knows something about feminine wiles as well, eventually and predictably distracting the oh-so-earnest Aurelius.
That’s not to say Aurelius doesn’t get his work done — which the movie notes in a lackluster episodic structure (so lackluster and so episodic that you wonder what any of the film’s A-listers saw in the script, save for a chance to visit a few locations). As soon as he and the team arrive at the island of Capri, where Romulus and Ambrosinus are imprisoned, they set about the business of fight scenes, one after the other, all involving the island’s thuggy guards, swords and knives, and the good guys gawking at Mira’s skills. She keeps her focus on the boy, insisting that she come along because she knows she’s a better and faster fighter than any of the men for whom she’s assigned to provide “support.”
The leaps of faith in The Last Legion are many, but once you’ve made one or two, Bollywood superstar Aishwarya Rai seems as likely a super-lethal fighter as Mr. Darcy. What’s harder to swallow is the film’s pedestrian plotting, premised on betrayals by politicians, who take advantage of their devoted minions. Both Aurelius and Mira suffer their own versions, leading to their decisions to cut ties with their pasts and throw in with the boy, the apparent future of Rome. “I am like you,” Mira tells Aurelius when they face a decision to move on or split up. “I have no country now. My road is your road.” (Aurelius is less articulate about his commitment: “You’re a handsome woman in your way.”)
The question of country — of borders that need defending and serve as markers for identity — remains mostly unresolved here. The fact that the titular legion has been abandoned by the foundering Rome and now waits for a mission in Britannia suggests that the whole empire thing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Still, Aurelius believes in Caesar, and so he convinces his crew to follow him across water, snowy mountains, sunny fields, and more water to arrive in Britannia. Here they hope to meet up with that last legion and fight yet another of Visigoths, this one led by the seemingly psychotic, golden-masked Vortgyn (Harry Van Gorkum). He has a particular, though not quite explained grudge against Ambrosinus, illustrated in a repeated flashback in which Vortgyn presses his overheated pendant into Ambrosinus’ chest and brands him.
Though Ambrosinus has a sense of mission (he believes in the sword that little Romulus recovers, and that the boy will use it to seek “truth,” the general goal is a little fuzzy. Aurelius, his voice cracking, declares in a pep rally sort of speech, “We have watched [Rome] crumble into dust! We have one more battle to be waged, against tyranny and the slaughter of innocents.” Just what they’re waging for, however, remains less clear.