Is there hope for Kazakhstani cinema after "Borat" (2006)? Ever since the release of Sacha Baron Cohen's satirical sensation, any mention of the words "Kazakhstan" and "movie" in the same breath inevitably conjures up images of the eponymous, fictitious TV journalist who had a funny accent and poor table manners. Perhaps as a corrective to this unjust misperception, the Kazakhstani government has co-sponsored the production of "Mongol," a brawny epic detailing the life of Genghis Khan. Their efforts, it seems, have not been in vain; "Mongol" isn't an especially memorable film, but it's smart, efficient and uncommonly well-made. If you're looking for a couple hours of generic summer action, you could do a lot worse this season.
When we first meet Genghis Khan, he's an uppity little nine-year-old named Temudjin, whose penetrating stare suggests he's got big plans for Central Asia. The son of a local warlord, Temudjin is offered his pick of all the prepubescent girls in the village to take as his bride ("Make sure she has good legs," his father cautions). He selects a bright-eyed cherub named Borte, and everything seems to be going swimmingly - until a violent uprising drives Temudjin away from his home and into the wilderness.
"Mongol" is directed by Sergei Bodrov, a talented artisan who has managed to craft one of the most visually dynamic action movies in recent memory. The film's copious battle sequences are shot and edited with concise immediacy, the dusty brown color scheme occasionally breaking into a sensuous interplay of steely blues and clotted reds. In an age when most Hollywood blockbusters endlessly reprocess the same grungy, unimaginative imagery, it's refreshing to encounter a director who understands the importance of visual poetry in action cinema.
Bodrov is clearly a scholar of classical genre conventions, framing his narrative as an existentialist Western of sorts. Take away the scimitars and furry hats, and "Mongol" starts to resemble the cowboy movie that Sergio Leone forgot to make. A few moments of fleeting tranquility notwithstanding, the film draws its intensity from the thunderous clashes between dueling male egos - it's unsurprising, therefore, that the subject of Genghis Khan's reputed bisexuality is no sooner raised than dismissed. "You can't cook two ram's heads in one pot," his wife scolds an abashed Genghis when he wakes up in the bed of another man, her tone stern enough to cow any adulterous warlord into monogamy.