Movies about Genghis Khan have been unsurprisingly scarce ever since John Wayne's disastrous foray in The Conqueror (1956). This was the last production financed by Howard Hughes, filmed in Nevada over a nuclear test site, starring the Duke in a role that may be charitably called a stretch, and co-starring Susan Hayward, who at one point features in a lavishly unerotic dances-with-sword scene that needless to say didn't make the final cut of That's Entertainment! (One can only imagine director Dick Powell's advice between takes: "Dance more Mongol.") The Conqueror vies with The Green Berets as the worst of Wayne's body of work; and one choice come-on he utters to Hayward -- "You're beautiful in your wrath!" -- competes with his five-second drawl as a Roman centurion in The Greatest Story Ever Told -- "Sharley this man was the sunna Gawd!" -- as his most regrettable.
With the bar abysmally low, last year's quasi-epic, Mongol (nominated for Best Foreign Language Film), can't help but seem an improvement. Directed by the Russian filmmaker Sergei Bodrov, it's watchable enough, with richly textured cinematography making the most of the Asian Steppe locales. And the Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano (who has some of the fierce dignity of Ken Watanabe) makes a visually splendid Temudjin. (Genghis Khan's formal name.) Yet in focusing solely on Temudjin's rise to power -- in barely over two hours -- Mongol chronicles the least interesting part of his life, which went on to conquests in China, Russia and the Middle East, even spreading as far west as Poland and Hungary after his death. Thanks to several Medieval History classes in college, including one memorably titled "Death and Violence in the Middle Ages," I know more about these events than anyone needs to; and it's probably a safe bet that Temudjin spent more time planning massacres than all the pining for love-of-his-life Borte (Khulan Chuluun, who is blessedly spared a sword-dance) depicted in the movie. It's clear, with the mix of lovey-dovey romance and thrust-'n'-grind bloodshed, that the filmmakers desperately hope to remind us of Braveheart. Still, let's be fair to the Great Khan: when it comes to brutality, Mel Gibson is a tough act to follow.
It's amazing how Guy Ritchie's movies add up to nothing. You sit there enjoying the groove, laughing at a good zinger, impressed by a well-staged bit of cleverness -- and then poof! The damn thing evaporates and you're left checking your watch. Ritchie's latest Brit-gangster comedy, RocknRolla, would have benefited from a 90-minute running time; at 115 it snaps like an overstretched piece of chewing gum.
This is not the fault of Gerard Butler who, as the dimwitted leader of a thug trio who far too self-flatteringly call themselves "the Wild Bunch," gives an appealingly self-effacing performance. Nor can I blame Tom Wilkinson, one of my least favorite actors, whose distinctly bland hamminess comes off somewhat livelier decked in Carl Reiner glasses and mouthing occasionally memorable lines like, "There's no school like old school, and I'm the fucking headmaster." As that implies, Wilkinson plays an aging, hot-tempered mob boss who figures in a plot that has something to do with a lot of money, a druggie son, and a stolen painting. I honestly can't remember what goes down in RocknRolla and if any of it made any sense while I was watching it, which wouldn't matter if the film were more than the sum of a few amusing parts. I cracked up at an extended chase sequence where the "Wild Bunch" is pursued relentlessly by a pair of indestructible Russian henchmen, and I would have enjoyed Butler's goofy dance with Thandie Newton (playing some kind of mob lawyer, I think) as much as Armond White did had Ritchie kept from cutting away every ten seconds. An end title rather presumptuously promises a sequel, as if this were a Bond film and not the withered fizz atop an opened can of Canada Dry. I'm eagerly in favor of mindless entertainment, but I draw the line at empty.