You want a history lesson? Take a class. You want clanging swords, sneering villains, storybook romance, and bloody vengeance? Here’s a brawny old-school epic to make the CGI tumult of 300, Alexander, and Troy look like sissy-boy slap parties. “Do not scorn the weak cub; he may become the brutal tiger,” the opening title card reads, and Russian director Sergei Bodrov (Prisoner of the Mountains) shrewdly casts this reverent retelling of Genghis Khan: The Early Years not as the rise of an emperor, but as a classic underdog tale. Using mostly real extras, stuntwork, and staggering locations, Bodrov recounts the 13th-century conqueror’s path from childhood enslavement to tender lover, doting dad, all-around square dealer, and—oh yeah—builder of the Mongol Empire. As storytelling, aside from its unobtrusive flashback structure, the movie’s as straight as the arrows that fly in close-up—a CGI trick that, like most of the movie’s limited digital effects, is more effective for being seldom used. It’s powered by a quietly commanding lead performance by Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano, and by the forceful evocation of its physical details: horses traversing a field of boulders, the heft of its bulky costumes. Last year’s Academy Award nominee from Kazakhstan for Best Foreign Film, Mongol is purportedly the first in a multi-film saga on the wrath of Khan; as such, it’s probably the last thing you’d expect—great fun.
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