While not in the same league as the visually dazzling EXCALIBUR and saddled with cheap-looking CGI effects, this Anglo-Italian co-production has quite a bit of fun finding a direct path from the fall of Rome to the birth of Arthurian legend (ground previously tread upon by the 2004 Clive Owen epic, KING ARTHUR). Adapted from a 2002 novel by Valerio Massimo Manfredi and unhampered by historical accuracy, the story entertainingly blends Gibbon into Malory to tell the tale how the magical Roman sword came to be embedded in a stone in far off Britain.
Rome, 470 A.D. Once ruler of all Europe, a sizeable chunk of Asia and the periphery of Africa, the Roman Empire now teeters on the verge of collapse. The unruly Goths, who had been subsidized as mercenary soldiers by Roman military commander Orestes (Iain Glen) are demanding far more than they were promised: Goth leader Odoacer (Peter Mullan) wants one-third of Italy or he'll invade Rome. Orestes ignores the threat, crowns his young son Emperor Romulus Augustus (Thomas Sangster) -- a mere boy whose veins carry the last drops of Julius Caesar's bloodline -- and entrusts his protection to Aurelius (Colin Firth)., commander of the Imperial Guard. Aurelius's first act is to banish Romulus's omnipresent schoolmaster, elderly Ambrosinus (Sir Ben Kingsley), who possesses the skills of a magician and surprising physical prowess. But no sooner does the crown touch the head of Rome's new boy Caesar than the barbarian hoards sack Rome, killing Orestes and his wife, Flavia (Beata Ben Ammar), and taking Romulus prisoner. Odoacer's lieutenant, Wulfila (Rome's Kevin McKidd), urges him to slaughter the young emperor, but at the last minute Ambrosinus returns and spooks the superstitious Goth leader with an ill-omen (a pet crow) and common sense: Killing Romulus will only make him a martyr while demonstrating to Rome that its new ruler is threatened by a mere child. Instead of death, Odoacer sentences Romulus and his schoolmaster to prison on the isle of Capri, where he'll be guarded by Wulfila. Aurelius races to his young charge's rescue, joined by a small band of faithful Roman soldiers, including Demetrius (Rupert Friend) , Batiatus (Nonso Anozie) and a mysterious masked guard who had recently arrived in Rome with an emissary (Alexander Siddig) of the Eastern Emperor in Constantinople. Once tha t mask is removed, the fierce warrior turns out to be Mira (Bollywood superstar Aishwarya Rai), a devastating beauty who can more than hold her own in a fight. But it's while he's prisoner on Capri that Romulus discovers his destiny: Excalibur, the legendary sword forged from a flaming meteorite and tempered in lion's blood for his ancestor, Julius Caesar. Passed down from one emperor to the next, the sword was eventually hidden away on Capri by Tiberius until the next hand worthy of wielding its power should find its hiding place. That hand belongs to Romulus, but his future lies not to the east, but to the north: Britannia, where a new enemy, Vortgyn (Harry Van Gorkum), lies in wait.
Unceremoniously dumped into theaters before its inevitable appearance on DVD, this rousing action adventure tale deserves a slightly better fate. Director Doug Lefler is no John Boorman, but he did cut his teeth on episodes of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess. What ever lessons he learned -- and an impressive international cast -- serves him well enough, and the film delivers exactly what it promises: clanging swords, archaic artillery, a blow-out battle at Hadrian's Wall and a fearsome woman warrior who could give Xena herself a run for her money.
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