Savvy viewers of the ancient adventure genre will recognize the archetypical, fratricide-free first chapters, the death of the father, the forbidding storms, the trails of the boy, even the faux Nietzschean opening quote echoing Conan the Barbarian, among others films. Only gradually does Mongol distinguish itself with a peppering of anthropologic detail and historical gloss. There is something interesting in the fact that Temudjin selects his bride at the age of nine, and selects very well: not only does Börte grow up to be a total fox, she’s a profoundly devoted spouse, deft advisor (“You can’t cook two ram heads in one pot”), and sturdy bearer of children, though whether or not these kids are actually Temudjin’s—Börte spends some time as the captor of Temudjin’s no doubt salacious enemies—is never confirmed or even broached. Such willingness to avoid emotional complications is indicative of an overall tendency to render characters into flat types. Jamukha, Temudjin’s blood brother and arch enemy, is about the only character given any significant shading, thanks in part to Honglei Sun’s fun, devilishly charming performance.
Temudjin is played by Tadanobu Asano, a versatile, beguiling actor familiar from films as diverse as Gohatto, Ichi the Killer, Last Life in the Universe and Takeshi Kitano’s Zatôichi. But while the casting is certainly inspired—were it a Western film about a white guy it would surely star the likes of Russell Crowe or some other hyper-masculine beau-hunk—relatively little is demanded of Asano. Temudjin is stoic, wise, supernaturally determined, and without hubris. He’s also a supernaturally strong warrior, at one point actually tossing a spear the size of a support beam with such force that it rips through a man’s chest and impales him to a tree.
Mongol, to be sure, has all the necessary ingredients of a crowd-pleasing epic (thus the Oscar nod): white hat heroes, gorgeous landscapes, insurmountable odds, big battle scenes drenched in CGI. It’s grandiose and expensive looking, with the pumped-up violence and discreet sex that defines the Hollywood model. It’s also, you know, kinda boring, or is it just me?