Mongolian Pony Express is a little more hardcore than the American version.

Theatrical Release Date: 09/20/2007 (Russia), 06/20/2008 (USA)
Director: Sergei Bodrov
Cast: Tadanobu Asano, Khulan Chuluun, Honglei Sun, Amadu Mamadakov

“Titanic”, “Chicago”, “Crash“. Do you need another example of why award-nominated/winning films don’t always translate to an exceptional movie experience? Well, add “Mongol” to that list … but don’t judge it quite as harshly. You see, whereas the first three films could all be melted down and dumped into a landfill in my opinion, “Mongol” just failed to do anything to impress me. Seeing as it was nominated for a 2008 Best Foreign Language Oscar, I was hoping for something quite good.

Before you go and say “Well, duh, the Academy Awards rarely get things right”, I think that being a Foreign Language nominee actually means something because to be nominated, you have to be the one film from a country they think is their best that year. Sure, that formula doesn’t always work with the U.S. (those three examples jumped right out at me … “Shakespeare in Love” also just popped into my head) but if you go and watch the majority of nominees in the Foreign Language category, you’ll have a really high ratio of good/great films to the mediocre/crappy.

With “Mongol”, it was one of those mediocre experiences. It relates the tale of Temudjin (Tadanobu Asano), from his time as a boy to his uniting of the Mongol clans and assumption of the title, Genghis Khan. This could have been an intriguing look into one of the most powerful figures in history. But director Sergei Bodrov, his editor and the screenwriter might have wanted to have another meeting or two before they began filming.

The film is a tedious succession of Temudjin being captured, escaping capture, and being captured again. I can count at least three cycles of this off the top of my head and retain the right to remember more. What makes this so aggravating is that you have to wonder about the intelligence of his captors … sure there’s a Mongol code about killing kids but they get him later … What are they? Bond villains? “Hey, we got the guy we have to kill … lock him up!” Wait, what? Just kill the guy already!

Throughout this Keystone Cops routine, his undying, eternal, idealistic love for his wife Börte (Khulan Chuluun) brings him back to her each time. Her character is a strong, independent woman who helps shape him into the great leader as which history recognizes him. I could start to raise complaints over this relationship dynamic in late 1100s Mongolia but it’s not going to help me sleep better at night so I’ll leave it at that.

The other key figure in the tale is Jamukha (Honglei Sun), whom Temudjin befriends after his first escape and becomes blood brothers with. Each have aspirations of becoming Khan and after years of fighting side-by-side, their rivalry reaches its expected conclusion during a “Braveheart” like battle (one of the two significant battles in the entire film).

While this power struggle is interesting and clearly important to the story, Sun’s performance is a little uneven and I think it could have used more direction. I wasn’t sure if his character was a little “slow” at times and he fluctuates between playful and vicious without too many indications of what motivated the switch.

And don’t even get me started on Temudjin’s assistance from his Lord of the Blue Skies, Tengri. This deity, depicted as a wolf at the top of a sacred mountain, mystically frees him from his chains at one point and creates a massive thunderstorm at another. I’m okay with a little hocus pocus, especially in regards to centuries old legends. However, it seemed that Temudjin (and his father) were the only ones who prayed to this God and apparently a lot of other hopeful Khans could have benefited if they only knew where this lone wolf hung out.

On the positive side, the film is shot beautifully and highlights the landscapes of rural China and Kazakhstan. Bodrov clearly meant to keep the color palette on the drab side for the most part but let loose the color in a few key scenes to contrast Temudjin’s happiness with Börte and his family versus the violence involved in ruling the Mongol clans.

The performances overall were also very good. Asano, especially, shines as the future Genghis Khan. The torment behind his eyes was evident even in many of the scenes where all he does is stare out into space. Chuluun is quite beautiful and it was easy to see why she was so desired, though seeing as it was her first film, many of her flat emotional scenes aren’t so surprising. Their chemistry together was a little stiff but believable overall.

Last on my hit parade is the pacing of the film. With such a stunted time line and script, trying to figure out if the movie is nearing its conclusion or just the next chapter of the saga is nearly impossible. It was almost like the filmmakers said, we want to cover these specific years, and bedamned any events that fall outside that calendar.

Still, the surest way to enjoy this film is to know ahead of time that you’re not getting an epic battle film. This is truly about his rise to power, not the conquering of lands thereafter. From that perspective, while Bodrov and the script did little to impress me, the actors kept it from being a complete waste and I was overall happy to have seen it. A 3 out of 5, “Mongol” might not be as impressive as advertised but I’ve seen plenty worse this year. Take what you will of that.