Mongol starts real strong. The Mongolian steppe lends itself quite well to Panavision composition and director Bodrov utilizes it fully. Bodrov’s approach to the material is interesting, if far from unique. For the Mongols riding on horses, he mimics Dances With Wolves. For battle scenes, especially at the end, he mimics Gladiator (which was just applying Saving Private Ryan to different material). For the dialogue-heavy scenes–Mongol‘s attention to the characters makes it somewhat peculiar–Bodrov seems to be channeling Michael Mann.
But Mongol‘s content makes it seem new, even if its approach to the title character is a cinematic standard. The first third of Mongol is the adventures of Genghis Khan as a boy and it’s excellent, because it’s leading up to something. I was aware, going in, the film was the first chapter in a planned trilogy… and only two hours long. But the stuff with the boy is so good–it’s epic in the traditional Hollywood way–it didn’t occur to me there wasn’t going to be a lot of time afterwards.
The boy loses his father, his mother has to protect him but eventually cannot. So he strikes out on his own, taken in by a newfound friend who subsequently helps him escape capture. It’s all very Hollywood–Yul Brynner would have played him in the American version fifty years ago. It gets even more standard when he becomes an adult. It’s not just his adopting his wife’s children (she’s kidnapped a couple times) as his own or, after being caged for six years, being in perfect physical condition. There’s even more to it. He always keeps his word, even after people doubt he’ll do it. He’s a movie hero.
What gets lost is the reality of the setting. Mongol never explains where the final battle armor–after the Mongols had never worn it in previous scenes–comes from. It never explains customs. It’s kind of neat, passively sticking in details, but once it becomes clear it’s not going to be a full narrative exercise and it’s not going to be Horse Thief, it’s hard to figure out what Mongol is actually doing.
It’s a rip-rousing action movie set in the twelfth century, fully utilizing modern filmmaking tools. But nothing else.
Some of the problem comes with the approach to the characters. Asano Tadanobu is good in the lead, but the character’s an enigma. The viewer only finds out what he’s thinking because another character tells him what he’s thinking and the viewer overhears. There’s also lots of missing time–I think the present action is twenty years, but it could be twenty-five or so–and Asano has to relate unseen changes in the character. Or he should… but Mongol‘s approach makes it a lot easier on him. What’s the difference between young Genghis Khan and adult Genghis Khan? He was shorter as a child.
It doesn’t help Sun Honglei runs off with the movie either, playing Asano’s eccentric and bombastic blood brother slash adversary. Sun’s great, but it doesn’t hurt his character gets some motivation throughout. Just like Khulan Chulunn as the wife… she’s got a real character. Her performance isn’t great, but it’s affecting.
Mongol tries real hard, but it’s predictable and needs to be sublime. Bodrov does a good job, throughout, of arresting the numerous quality declines, particularly for the ending. He just ends it upbeat and it works, because it’s such a traditional story.
Directed by Sergei Bodrov; written by Arif Aliyev and Bodrov; directors of photography, Sergey Trofimov and Rogier Stoffers; edited by Zach Staenberg and Valdis Oskarsdottir; music by Tuomas Kantelinen; production designer, Dashi Namdakov; produced by Sergey Selyanov, Bodrov and Anton Melnik; released by Nashe Kino.
Starring Asano Tadanobu (Temudgin), Sun Honglei (Jamukha), Khulan Chuluun (Borte), Odnyam Odsuren (Young Temudgin), Aliya (Oelun), Ba Sen (Esugei), Amadu Mamadakov (Targutai) and Ba Yin (Merchant With Golden Ring).