Last year's Academy Award nominee from Kazakhstan for best foreign film, Mongol is purportedly the first in a multi-film saga of the wrath of Khan. "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 the movie not as the rise of an emperor but as a classic underdog tale. Led by his tribal-leader father on a customary trek to select a future bride, nine-year-old Temudgin settles at once on spunky young Borte, his lifelong love. On the trip back, a rival poisons dad, and the powerless boy narrowly escapes death at the hands of treacherous clansman Targutai (Amadu Mamadakov) — escapes, that is, at least until he's old enough to be killed.
Torn from his family, the boy Temudgin (played by coolly impassive child actor Odnyam Odsuren) ends up a slave, shackled in a bulky cangue while old enemy Targutai hurls taunts and watches him grow. "I'll kill you," the kid says, with perfect Tony Montana sangfroid. "I'll kill you first!" rages Targutai, slashing a "You Must Be This Tall to Die" notch in a post above the boy's head. Before he can part Temudgin from his brainpan, the future Khan escapes across the misty steppes, surviving with help from a mystical wolf. Destiny awaits — along with kidnappings, betrayals, hairbreadth escapes and the building of one kickass army.
Whether for the sake of making Temudgin more sympathetic, or simply streamlining an already unwieldy story, Mongol skips some pivotal chapters in its hero's development — such as his murdering his half-brother for stealing a fish — before Tadanobu Asano takes over the role as an adult. As historical accuracy goes, however, Mongol doesn't exactly have a high bar to clear. Bodrov could make the Khan a Radio City Rockette and still sail over the woeful benchmark set by 1956's The Conqueror, in which noted Mongolian thespian John Wayne woos Susan Hayward's Borte in the radioactive Utah desert. ("This Tartar woman is for me, and my blood says, take her," rumbles Genghis Duke.) The 1965 pageant Genghis Khan replaced Hayward with Catherine Deneuve's twin sister, Françoise Dorléac, surrounding her with honorary Mongols like James Mason.
At least Mongol's looking in the right hemisphere. The casting of Asano, the Japanese arthouse pinup whose résumé extends from Hou Hsiao-hsien to Takashi Miike, may have been knocked overseas, but the actor has a quiet authority that's hugely effective. Let him face a sadistic foe, and suddenly he's Charles Bronson squinting at a jaywalker. He strikes sparks not only with Khulan Chuluun, the newcomer who plays the adult Borte, but also with Chinese actor Sun Hong Lei as Jamukha, Temudgin's shifty blood brother, who in the movie's second half extends the grand tradition of effete, secretly adoring archenemies.
As storytelling, outside 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. (The exceptions are frequent sprays of pixelized blood, which always look like a soda-fountain mishap, and the ready-for-retirement god's-eye shot of vast hordes thundering toward each other.) With cinematographers Rogier Stoffers and Sergey Trofimov, Bodrov anchors the action in tactile details — horses traversing a field of boulders, footsteps planted firmly in sand and snow, Jamukha's undigitized forces swelling to fill the Cinemascope horizon.
Will the Mongol saga maintain its momentum and emotional involvement in subsequent films, when Temudgin rules the Mongol Empire — and when he'll make good on his threat here to bring law to his subjects "even if I have to kill half of them"? The last thing the world needs (besides another enlightened despot) is another ode to enlightened despotism, and the reverent revisionism of Mongol — never more gaga than when Temudgin and Borte engage in some sweet Mongol lovin' with an orgasmic cutaway to cranes in flight — is uncomplicated here by questions of genocide. But this beefy, rousing spectacle is as unconcerned with critics as its nine-year-old emperor-to-be, who regards his future subjects like a born movie director: "If they're weak, let them be offended."