You really can’t trust movie posters these days. The one for the new adventure drama The Legion features Mickey Rourke and Bai Ling prominently above the title, but, as is all too typical of internationally geared productions these days, their presence is designed to fool global audiences.
Rourke, playing a Roman general, spends almost the entirety of his brief stint in the film having a one-sided discussion with a bust of the Emperor Nero. And Bai Ling, letting her garish makeup do much of her acting for her, shows up for a single scene as his hectoring wife, who delivers a pep talk in the form of encouraging him to become a martyr.
The advice proves self-fulfilling, at least for Rourke, who once again squanders his credibility for an easy paycheck. Sporting an eyepatch, eyeliner beneath it and white nail polish, the Oscar-nominated actor lets loose a series of f-bombs and angrily asks the bust of Nero, “What’s going on?” You know, as Roman generals were wont to do in those days.
Those days being Syria in 62 A.D., to be exact, as the opening titles for the film “inspired by true events” informs us. The real star of this debut directorial effort from veteran Spanish producer José Magán (Stranded, Moscow Zero) turns out to be Lee Partridge, a British actor and circus performer whose upcoming credits, according to IMDb, include COVID-21: Lethal Virus (that didn’t take long).
In this film that plays like an ancient Roman version of 1917, Partridge plays Noreno, a half-Roman soldier who is given the assignment of crossing the wintry mountains of Armenia to deliver an urgent message to two Roman legions that have become trapped during the invasion of Parthia. Noreno is judged qualified for the dangerous task because he’s an expert runner, although the fact that he hates the Roman Empire and everything it stands for means that his motivation leaves something to be desired.
Noreno, who also narrates the proceedings, dutifully sets off on his trek, periodically stopping to engage in vigorous sword fights with Parthian soldiers who cross his path. Along the way, he also encounters various figures, including a young woman whom he saves from being raped, a bounty hunter who briefly manages to capture him and an older man who rescues him and with whom he engages in a lengthy philosophical discussion that stops the film cold. “These last few days, I think I felt freedom for the first time,” Noreno comments, although it’s unlikely that many viewers will relate.
Mostly, however, Noreno does lots and lots of running, an activity that quickly proves repetitive to watch onscreen. (Partridge’s athleticism serves him well here, although the rest of his performance proves underwhelming by comparison.) By the end of his mission, it becomes apparent that what Noreno really went through was a self-empowering growth experience. “I’d like to think that somewhere out there, there’s a woman for me,” he muses, in a bit of dialogue that indicates the sophistication of the screenplay by Pedro Santamaria and Carmen Ballesteros.
Director Magán displays no flair for action sequences, although the budgetary limitations obviously didn’t help. Nor does he successfully pull off the dramatic scenes, including one in which Rourke delivers an anguished, tearful monologue that plays like a decades-old Actors Studio audition piece and nearly erases all memories of his sensitive work in such films as Diner and The Wrestler.
Production companies: Magol Films, Carbara Films, Equo Entertainment
Distributor: Saban Films
Cast: Lee Partridge, Mickey Rourke, Bai Ling, Joaquim de Almeida, Vladimir Kulich
Director-producer: José Magán
Screenwriters: Pedro Santamaria, Carmen Ballesteros
Executive producers: Stuart Alson, Elias Axume, David Coppa, Matthew Helderman, Tom Hillery, Joe Listhaus, José Magán, Luke Taylor
Directors of photography: Robert Reed Altman, Nacho Tundidor
Production designers: Ana Taboada, Judith Alcubierre
Editor: Omar Bermudez
Composer: Jordi Longan
Costume designer: Nerea Castañares
Casting: Dean E. Fronk, Donald Paul Pemrick
Rated R, 96 minutes