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'Last Legion' sprawls like Rome

The swords-and-sandals epic set during the empire's fall is out for some overblown fun.

August 20, 2007|John Anderson | Special to Newsday

Toss a little Arthurian legend, some J.R.R. Tolkien, a few stalks of "I, Claudius" and some sliced "Star Wars" in a vegetable spinner and you get the Caesar salad of "The Last Legion," whose cast is almost distractingly rich (and thick) and whose sense of history is, shall we say, convenient to the narrative. Like "Harry Potter" (whose influence also rears its scarred little head amid the armor and arrows) this overblown swords-and-sandals epic is not as bad as it sounds nor as good as it might have been.

It's AD 460, and the Roman Empire is about to fall. Giving it a little push are Odoacer (a ferocious Peter Mullan) and his army of slavering, unwashed Goths, who sack Rome with the kind of lusty enthusiasm that we haven't seen since the iPhone went on sale. What they want, presumably, besides gold and territory, is Romulus Augustus (Thomas Sangster), the last Caesar and a beardless boy of elfin looks and precocious wisdom. O, if only this lad could lead the once-mighty empire back to its place of glory! Where civilized citizens with British accents could use big words in peace! But no: The Goths really do take charge, and Romulus -- crowned the new Caesar -- has to take it on the lam.

As testament to the globalization promoted by earlier Caesars, the cast is a melange of dubious Italians, Scots and one saucy south Indian warrior, who under her mask turns out to be the beautiful Mira (Aishwarya Rai), a get-down grrrl who impresses Romulus' protector, Aurelius (Colin Firth), in more ways than one. Together -- and in company with an old wizard who looks a lot like Ben Kingsley (Ben Kingsley) -- they travel to Britain to find the lost 9th Legion of the Caesars' once-vast armies and take up the sword against evildoers who are oppressing the last outpost of Roman rule.

The scope of the film is huge and sprawling, even though the computerized enhancement of landscapes and human masses are usually pretty obvious. Firth, who has been relegated to playing the profoundly uptight in comedies like "Bridget Jones's Diary" and "Nanny McPhee," shows he has the stuff to swashbuckle. Rai may be, along with Jennifer Connelly and Zhang Ziyi, one of the three most beautiful actresses in film. Kingsley, kissing the ground of "sweet Brittania" upon his arrival there, is having his fun, and there's a lot to go around.

Nothing, however, is to be taken seriously, not the story, not the acting and certainly not the history.

"The Last Legion." MPAA rating: PG-13 for sequences of intense action violence. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes. In general release.

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