By Rene Rodriguez, The Miami Herald
”Do not scorn a weak cub,” reads a proverb at the start of Mongol. “He may become a brutal tiger.”
Genghis Khan, of course, is more than brutal; he will eat tigers for breakfast. The legendary 13th century conqueror, who controlled a fifth of the world at the height of his power, has been the protagonist of two previous Hollywood films. In one, he was played by John Wayne; in the other Omar Sharif. Neither film is remembered today, for good reason.
Directed by the Russian Sergei Bodrov (Prisoner of the Mountains), Mongol — which features an all-Asian cast and was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar this year — is a much more lasting work, doing justice to a man rivaled only by Alexander the Great in terms of mythical stature.
Oliver Stone tried encapsulating Alexander’s life into one movie, only to discover the task was impossible. Bodrov knows better, using Mongol — the first of an intended trilogy — to center on Genghis Khan’s formative years, when he still went by the name Temudgin and had not yet led Mongolia’s warring tribes and factions to consolidate into a formidable whole.
Beginning with his boyhood, Mongol depicts Temudgin as a proud, defiant, indomitable warrior (charismatically played by the Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano) and doting husband to his wife Borte (Khula Chulunn). Or at least as doting as time allows, since he is frequently busy leading armies into bloody battle, rotting away in dank prisons or avoiding assassins’ arrows and swords.
Bodrov, who has shot the film in widescreen format with the thunder and fury of an old-school Hollywood epic, is not interested in a historically precise recounting of Temudgin’s life. Less-than-honorable incidents (such as the childhood murder of his half-brother) are conveniently omitted, and God himself (in the form of a wolf) intervenes in the action not once, but twice, to save Temudgin from a certain death.
Only in Temudgin’s growing rivalry with his brother Jamukha (the excellent Honglei Sun), an equally charismatic and dangerous warrior, does Mongol really strike any dramatic complexity. The rest of the film is as black-and-white as a western, edging too closely to hagiography to be taken seriously as a work of historical fiction. But the battle sequences are tremendous, and the performances are captivating, making for the sort of rousing, giant-scale entertainment that a figure as towering as Genghis Khan deserves.
Cast: Tadanobu Asano, Honglei Sun, Khulan Chuluun, Odnyam Odsuren
Director: Sergei Bodrov
Screenwriters: Arif Aliyev
Producer: Sergey Selyanov
A Picturehouse release. Running time: 122 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, gore, adult themes. In Mongolian with English subtitles. In Miami-Dade: Aventura, Sunset Place, South Beach; in Broward: Gateway; in Palm Beach: Delray, Shadowood.