MongolDirected by Sergei BodrovStarring Tadanobu Asano, Khulan Chuluun, Odnyam Odsuren and Honglei SunRated R*7*
Goes well with: Lawrence of Arabia, Braveheart, Conan the Barbarian
One of director Sergei Bodrov's wisest moves in making Mongol, the new epic that recalls Genghis Khan's rise to power, was to shoot the film in China and Kazakhstan, the very lands the Mongol leader united back in the day. The sweeping vistas and bare, windswept swaths of land are still awe-inspiring, relatively unchanged from when Temudjin, the warrior later known as Genghis, was doing his thing almost a thousand years ago.
But though Mongol strives to be an epic along the lines of Lawrence of Arabia, it has more in common with, say, Conan the Barbarian, complete with enormous battles stuffed full with slashing and hacking and bloodletting. Many of Khan's motivations—his reasons for uniting the Mongol tribes, his unspoken sense of intense pride and honor—go largely unexplained. But there's historical evidence to back things up, so though we might not learn why he did the things he did, we know he did them, and since this is the first film in a planned trilogy—“Khan of the Rings,” if you will—he might as well do the things he's said to have done.
Those things start slowly. A young Temudjin watches his father die—poisoned by enemies—leaving Temudjin to spend virtually all of his youth penniless, constantly on the run from his foes, who sense that it'll be easier to kill him when he's young. The boy eventually grows into a man, a brutal fighter who will cut down anyone who crosses him. When his wife Börte (Khulan Chuluun) is kidnapped, he goes to his childhood friend Jamukha (Honglei Sei) looking for warriors to take her back. This messes with Mongol traditions, but Jamukha accedes, and together they tear through their enemies, mostly in slow motion. Upside: Temudjin is reunited with Börte, who later saves him on more than one occasion, remaining his closest advisor during his long reign. Downside: Temudjin is generous with his warriors in terms of the spoils of war, leading many of Jamukha's finest to follow him. This sets into motion the end of their lifelong bromance, setting the stage for what will later be pretty much the Mongol Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Tadanobu Asano, often called the Japanese Johnny Depp, is serviceable and stoic as Temudjin, basically a stranger in his own lands, struggling to survive and desperately in need of a good exfoliation. And first-time actor Khulan Chuluun holds her own as his wife, forced to follow her husband around the desert with their children in tow, or to wait for years while he takes off to unite the Mongol hordes. But Honglei Sun, as Temudjin's longtime arch-nemesis Jamukha, has the most fun, having created the most well-rounded character of them all, a brash warlord who wants nothing more than to be the Big Dog. Seriously, you wish he'd just throw back his head and holler “Khaaaaaaaan,” Shatner-style.
Though the plot meanders through the desert, the action scenes are pretty cool, with thousands of warriors on horseback slashing and impaling each other. The sequences are immense, which might allow you to forgive the film's flaws, the largest of which is that Mongol feels like a first chapter, like two hours of exposition. There's much to be enjoyed here, and the character of Genghis Khan is finally more fleshed out than he was in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, but it feels as though the true story will be told in the second installment.