What do you say about a movie called The Legion that never features a legion? Sure there’s talk about a legion, but never in this supposed was it’s supposed to be read that way, but the reason for this choice is unclear. From there, things just get stranger.
The story, which is based on true events, takes place in 62 A.D. during the Roman invasion of Parthia. Two unlucky legions are stranded in Armenia where their rations have dwindled and they are days away from perishing in the cold, hostile land. Although trtime epic are there scenes featuring troops engaged in battle. There are some squabbles involving two, sometimes three, maybe even four individuals, but sweeping battles these are not. This is just one puzzling element in a movie that’s riddled with them.
The head-scratching starts from the first scene in which Mickey Rourke, as the Roman General Corbulo, delivers a monologue to the head of a Renaissance-style statue of the Emperor Nero. The staging is reminiscent of a play, and perhaps man in charge, General Paetus (Joaquin de Almeida), has attempted to send for help from General Corbulo, who’s safely stationed with his soldiers in Syria, so far his messengers have failed to get through. In desperation, Paetus turns to the soldier, Noreno (Lee Partridge), who’s known for his endurance, and tasks him with taking the deadliest route possible to get the message out.
After two failed plots by noblemen and senators, including Corbulo’s son-in-law, the senator Lucius Annius Vinicianus, to overthrow Nero in 62 AD, Nero became suspicious of Corbulo and his support among the Roman masses. In 67 AD disturbances broke out in Judaea and Nero, ordering Vespasian to take command of the Roman forces, summoned Corbulo, as well as two brothers who were the governors of Upper and Lower Germany, to Greece. On his arrival at Cenchreae, the port of Corinth, messengers from Nero met Corbulo and ordered him to commit suicide. Undaunted, he strode forward to accept his fate, and fell on his own sword after exclaiming, “Axios!“ meaning “I am worthy!”
The premise is similar to that of the recent Oscar nominee 1917, but The Legion was made with a far lower budget. The movie is the directorial debut of José Magán, who has a handful of credits as a producer under his belt. Yet that experience doesn’t seem to have taught him how to maximize a limited budget. The movie’s minimal CGI is overly obvious, the fight choreography is pedestrian and the editing is sloppy. Even worse is the clumsy dialogue — especially since there’s a lot of it. Based on a story by Magán and Pedro Santamaria, the script by Santamaria and Carmen Ballesteros includes multiple scenes of actors delivering big chunks of grand dialogue, particularly early in the movie. This is meant to explain what’s happening, but it’s written in such an arch, ridiculous way, it’s hard to take any of it seriously.
Then, once Noreno is off on his mission, a surprise voice-over kicks in where the soldier shares his internal thoughts with the audience. Not only is the dialogue once again ridiculous, it also removes any subtext from the character’s experience. Yet it’s clear why the filmmakers decided the voice-over was necessary. A shocking amount of the movie is dedicated to shots of Noreno running. There’s so much running. The voice-overs are one strategy the filmmakers use to make the running more interesting. At one point, they also turn to the soundtrack to enliven the proceedings, pumping an out-of-left-field soft-rock tune over a scene of Noreno running through the landscape.
Noreno’s running is also broken up by chance meetings with friends and foes along the way. He rescues a woman (Marta Castellvi) from men who are assaulting her and at various points is attacked by deserters and Parthian soldiers. In addition, late in the film he’s rescued by a former Roman soldier named Saul (Bosco Hogan), who injects a random bit of Christian proselytizing into the story. Noreno eventually makes it to General Corbulo with his reputation for remarkable endurance intact, although his continued survival relied on several convenient coincidences that often defied explanation.
While The Legion as a whole is full of bizarre choices, Mickey Rourke’s presence may be the most bizarre of all. Rourke shows up throughout the film to wax poetic (and curse liberally) about various topics, an unnecessary addition that seems to be predicated on maximizing the screen-time of the cast’s biggest star. Yet despite all the over-acting he’s doing, Rourke is still upstaged by the look that’s been created for his character, which includes an eye-patch, heavy eye-makeup and an impressive French manicure.
If that weren’t enough, once Noreno finally arrives in Syria and Rourke’s character joins the main plotline, it quickly becomes clear he’s unable or unwilling to pronounce the Roman names correctly. It’s as if the filmmakers are so excited the actor agreed to be in the film that they decided to let him do whatever he wanted, including butchering other characters’ names. Taken together, all this makes it seem like Rourke dropped in from another movie entirely. Meanwhile, the other big name in the cast, Bai Ling, makes the most of her appearance as Rourke’s mistress, but she only shows up in the last 15 minutes of the movie.
With so many odd choices and strange interludes, The Legion almost reaches so bad it’s good status. Unfortunately, all the scenes featuring Noreno running tip the scales, making the film more boring than inadvertently funny. Although some viewers might see that as an opportunity for a drinking game, which would make the movie as a whole a lot more bearable.
Directed by José Magán, The Legion stars Lee Partridge, Mickey Rourke and Bai Ling. The movie is available May 8 on demand and digital.