Americans have such a lamentable grasp of history that many of us probably think the Mongols are a long-defunct NFL team. When I was in high school, Genghis Khan was merely a vague symbol of Far Eastern barbarity, one of many marauders who swept across the globe to threaten Western civilization.
So “Mongol” proves eye-opening in two ways: Sweeping, bloody battles will make your orbs pop, and you'll re-evaluate this supposedly “uncivilized” man who unified quarrelsome Central Asian tribes to create one of the largest empires in history.
Director Sergei Bodrov, who wrote the script with Arif Aliyev, follows Temudjin (as he was known before becoming a ruling “khan”) from the age of 10 to about 40.
We begin when the grown Temudjin is imprisoned by the Chinese in the late 12th century, after proving a threat to a dynasty. We then flash back to circumstances that put him in jail: The boy picks a child bride a bit older than himself, watches his father die after a Mongol ritual of hospitality toward an enemy, vows vengeance, acquires influence, reconnects with his wife and is betrayed to the Chinese. Then we watch Temudjin escape from prison, about to become the khan who would change the map of the world (including Bodrov's native Russia).
The film doesn't romanticize Temudjin (charismatic Japanese pop singer-actor Tadanobu Asano). He's willing to use force if reason fails, and he's a clever battle tactician, but he'd rather persuade foes to join him than punish them.
Bodrov and Zack Snyder must have had the same visual thoughts simultaneously, because sprawling combat scenes will remind you of “300.” (Bodrov started shooting his movie before Snyder, so he's not stealing.) Fountains of slow-motion blood, sprinkled in artistic arts or billowing in crimson jets, dot the landscape in slow motion.
Yet the more satisfying parts are quiet ones, when we see the Mongols at peace. Temudjin's well-grounded wife (Khulan Chuluun) gets plenty of freedom in their relationship, though no hope of political power. Alliances and feuds go beyond personal feelings, and it's intriguing to see long-vanished codes of behavior in action. Bodrov reportedly spent four years researching and shooting, and details pile up impressively.
Bodrov used two cinematographers: Sergei Trofimov, who shot the hallucinatory “Night Watch” and “Day Watch,” and Hollywood veteran Rogier Stoffers, who has done the down-to-Earth “Disturbia” and the remake of “The Bad News Bears.” They make “Mongol” intimately spooky and broadly spectacular; however much history you absorb, the visual elements will leave you goggling.