Finally, a movie that restores the good-guy reputation of Genghis Khan! You've been waiting for this one, I know.
Actually, as revisionist epics go, "Mongol" is often startlingly good. It has epic power and plenty of big battles, but director Sergei Bodrov also has a feeling for the small, intimate moments in the life of Genghis Khan – or, to be precise, Temudgin, his birth name. Temudgin doesn't sound as scary as Genghis Khan, though.
We first meet up with Temudgin at age 9, in 1172, as he accompanies his tribal chief father Esugei (Ba Sen) across the steppes. There are lots of steppes to climb in "Mongol" and they're real, not computer-generated. (Bodrov filmed in remote locations in Mongolia, China, and – apologies to Borat – Kazakhstan). Nothing if not precocious, Temudgin picks out a bride en route, 10-year-old Borte, who also has eyes for him.
He must wait five years for the marriage ceremony, however. As he says goodbye to Borte he gives her a wishbone as a token of his dedication. This wishbone goes in for much heavy-duty symbolism in "Mongol," which strenuously attempts to paint Temudgin (played as an adult by the Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano) as a one-woman guy even though, as a matter of historical record, he had hundreds of wives. But Borte (Khulan Chuluun) was clearly his main squeeze and she's so striking that she looks as if she could model the latest parka wear in Paris.
As Temudgin ascends to his rightful place in the warrior-o-sphere, he endures captivity and worse. The rival tribal chieftain who swore to kill the boy when he came of age – nice of him to wait – kidnaps Borte and ends up ganged up on by Temudgin and his blood-brother buddy Jamukha (the marvelous, Yul Brynner-ish Honglei Sun), who can't understand why anyone would wage a war over a woman. Jamukha is fond of saying things like, "For Mongol, horse is more important than woman."
It's only a matter of time before Temudgin and Jamukha square off. (You half expect them to say, "This tundra's not big enough for the both of us.") It's all very classical – best friends become best enemies. But since Bodrov has such a sweeping, magisterial vision, the face-off seems fated rather than hokey. That's true of just everything in "Mongol," which at times resembles a David Lean epic with frostbite. It even has a marvelous score by the Finnish composer Tuomas Kantelinen that utilizes what sounds like incantatory chants.
Thanks to Hollywood, the historical epic genre has long had a reputation for being shmaltzy and star-driven and, nowadays, bleary with CGI effects. "Mongol" is a throwback to a more respectable tradition. The largeness of its scope arises naturally from the material, not the budget. The movie earns its stature.
I'm not sure I'm comfortable with the notion of Genghis Khan as a benevolent hero, though. On the other hand, do we really want to go back to the days of Jack Palance and Omar Sharif as Mongol mongrels? Grade: A– (Rated R for sequences of bloody warfare.)