Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Great Wall at Simatai

The Great Wall, 3 hours away from Beijing:

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

In Beijing: Part 2

Houhai Lake, just outside our front door:

Wangfujing Shopping District:
People's University of China:

Summer Palace:

Monday, May 26, 2008

In Beijing: Part 1

The brand spanking-new International Terminal in the Beijing Capital Airport:

My place of residence in Beijing -- an old-style courtyard home, updated with modern amenities (like the Internet access that I'm using to write this email):

Urian Brown, traveling companion, dead tired:

Friday, May 23, 2008

Raiders of the Lost Youth: "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull"

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008, Dir. Steven Spielberg)

It's not the years honey, it's the mileage.

So said Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) back in 1981, in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and 27 years on, those words take on an additional poignance. Now it's about the years and the mileage, as the 65-year old Ford and weathered filmmakers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas release the fourth chapter of the Jones saga. As Spielberg has said, there was never a pressing need to make this film -- the third film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), concluded with Indy and his tetchy father, Henry Jones Sr. (Sean Connery) literally riding into the sunset, and in the protracted hiatus since then, rumors and ideas for a new adventure floated about much like the crazed spirits that were released from the Ark of the Convenant in Raiders. No, claimed Spielberg, this film wasn't necessary, but it would be a valentine to the fans, a salute to their devotion to their pulp hero over the years.

Raiders still towers over the genre as its own unique creation -- unashamedly inspired by the pulp serials of Lucas and Spielberg's youth, it upped the ante with A-class production values, a knowing sense of humor, and action sequences that were fleet-footed and bone-jarring. Raiders' lesser sequels Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and the Last Crusade tended to lean towards cartoonish bombast, but the die had been cast: these films set the template for action extravaganzas of the '80s and '90s, and their influence can be seen everywhere, from the increased action quota in the recent Bond films to the Da Vinci Code and the tongue-in-cheek "hunting for buried artifact" hijinks of Sahara and National Treasure.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a conscious throwback to those halcyon '80s days, right down to the old-style Paramount logo that opens up the picture. Like the Bond series, Indy subsists on familiar signposts -- the beat-up fedora hat, the dusty booby-trapped tomb, Indy's phobia of snakes, the scenes of old-style planes buzzing towards far-off destinations that are helpfully outlined on a map, a familiar face or two for extra comfort. This time around we're in the year 1957, nearly 20 years after the last adventure: Indy is put on a trail that leads to a rumored lost city of gold in the heart of the Amazon when the young, well-coiffured Mutt Williams (Shia LeBouf) shows up on his university doorstep with a tale of a lost, mad professor (John Hurt) and a cadre of Soviet spies on his tail. This comes after a prologue in which Jones is kidnapped by the same Russkies, escorted to Area 51, where all of this country's secret artifacts (including the Ark of the Covenant, nudge nudge, wink wink) are squirreled away, and asked to locate a magnetic coffin containing the skeleton of what appears to be an alien (close encounters of the third kind, indeed). Leading the Commies is special agent Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), Stalin's golden girl and a self-proclaimed psychic expert eager to claim the all-seeing knowledge of the aliens for Mother Russia. Working with Spalko (or against her, depending on whim) is Cockney mercenary Mac (Ray Winstone), whose money hunger knows no bounds.

Naturally, not all is as it seems, and plenty of twists and turns crop up before Indy and friends arrive at the fabled city. It's no big secret that Mutt is the lad Indy sired with Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), the feisty heroine of Raiders, and most of the fun of the movie's first half comes from Indy and Mutt's guarded interactions. The older man is bemused at the younger man's incredulousness at his exploits; the younger man has a chip on his shoulder and a way with a switchblade, when he's not making like James Dean on the back of his motorbike and saving Indy during a fun motorbike chase across Yale University's grounds. Soon we're off to the Nazca lines in Peru, and then to the heart of South America's jungles, where the principals take turns betraying each other and stealing the titular crystal skull, which holds the key to the lost city.

For a while Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is genial entertainment, preferring to lay back and lay on the exposition while pep is added with a few nifty action sequences. Certainly it approximates the look and feel of your standard lavish Indy adventure, as cinematographer Janusz Kaminski deliberately echoes the great Douglas Slocombe's rich palette from the '80s films. The movie's major setpiece, a motorcade chase in the jungle in which the antagonists find themselves playing musical jeeps, has a sprightly momentum when it's not cutting away to the sight of Mutt making like Tarzan with a multitude of CGI monkeys.

Yes, CGI -- before too long it becomes apparent that Kingdom is crammed wall-to-wall with it, from imagined exotic locales, computer-generated groundhogs and killer ants, and a finale featuring a collapsing city that might as well be a bunch of floating pixels. The earlier Indy adventures didn't shy away from effects, or even dodgy ones, but the settings and practical stunts maintained an earthbound quality to them -- here, your eyes are apt to glaze over when you see two combatants clash swords as they stand on separate jeeps zooming at 60 miles per hour in a green-screened jungle. The concept is good in theory, but the artificiality of the effects blands out the edge.

While Spielberg's reflexes as an action filmmaker are still very much present, these movies require more than muscle memory -- they depend on zip, economy, and a devil-may-care brio. Tons of things are explained in Kingdom, plenty of confrontations occur, and John Williams throws in some familiar musical motifs in an effort to get the blood flowing, and yet the movie lacks urgency, and a reason to care. Scene after scene wafts by, and historical explanations and mumbo-jumbo over clues and locations pile up. A Spielberg in his salad days would no doubt push pedal to the metal in order to get to the good stuff, and he might have had the room to do so if it wasn't for Lucas (who came up with the basic story with Jeff Nathanson). It's clear Lucas hasn't shaken off the over-talkiness from his Star Wars prequels, and the result is a protracted, distracted plot. Character interactions suffer the most with this approach: Marion and Indy trade a few zingers, yet their rekindled love receives a grand total of about 30 seconds on screen, while Indy and Mutt's easy chemistry tends to get lost amid the dusty caverns, trap doors and collapsing structures that seem to occupy every inch of the frame during the story's latter half. Her face jutting out from beneath a black bob cut and dressed in fatigues that would seem more suited for a plane mechanic, Blanchett is cartoonish yet alluring as Spalko; it's a shame her character isn't allowed to develop into a true threat. Old pros Hurt and Winstone are basically relegated to the scenery. Ford slips into the role of Indy like a weatherbeaten pair of slippers, and for a 65-year old he shows admirable energy and physical grace. Still, there is a touch of dullness in his performance, as if he (like Spielberg and Lucas) is shaking off the cobwebs even as he tries to pull the old moves.

For all its subplots and hinted-at themes (how to age gracefully, the pursuit of knowledge for power), Kingdom lacks the unity of the previous Jones adventures, hoary as they sometimes were. In Raiders, the overriding idea was that some things are not meant to be known, even as it celebrated the derring-do that goes into the quest. The darker Temple of Doom was a parable about Bogart-like nobility in the face of despicable subjugation, while the more family-oriented Last Crusade suggested that family bonds are way more important than archeological glory or even immortality. Spielberg's values have always been conservative; in the end, new-fangled gadgetry and obsessive quests for the ultimate in power or knowledge take a back seat to home, hearth, and old-fashioned American home life, whether that home is a staid university classroom or the wedding inside a blindingly white church that occurs at the end of Kingdom. But apart from that sweet conclusion (and a final sly shot of Mutt, or should we say Henry Jones III, holding Indy's fabled fedora in his hands, a faraway look in his eyes), you'll find little that's actually transporting. If Raiders was a race car ride through the desert, sand and wind flying in your face, then Kingdom is a meandering bus tour complete with jokey tour guide: you may look fondly upon the land as it passes by, note spots which seem mighty familiar, and remember when it was all fresh and new, when we all had a little less mileage on us.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Dodge and Parry: "Redbelt"

Redbelt (2008, Dir. David Mamet)

Let's go to court ... let's go to Brazil ... Insist on the move, insist on the move ... Improve the position, improve the position ... Breathe. Breathe. Look for a way out. There's always a way out.

Couched in the vocabulary of mixed martial arts, the rhythms of the above quotation are rat-tat-tat, as you would expect in any action film concerning humans pummeling other humans, and yet in their insistence, their obsessive repetition, they could only have come from one man: David Mamet, playwright, film director, and black-belt jiu-jitsu artist. It seems almost shocking that Mamet has never tackled a film in the martial arts arena before -- the idea of a ritualized confrontation between two men in a ring is a perfect counterpoint to Mamet's verbal jousts, which are just as bruising as any physical combat.

But there's more to Mamet's work than conversational pugilism -- he habitually undercuts his foul, fast-talking characters by plopping them in a funhouse of cons, feints, and trickery. In House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner, Spartan, and others, the verbal volleyball serves as the dense surface beneath which the machinations of plot, fate, and a cruel world threaten to overwhelm his heroes.

That fate awaits Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the easygoing yet focused jiu-jitsu instructor who's not terribly keen on making money or entering official competitions; as he puts it, he doesn't train people to win, he trains them to "prevail." Married to nagging Sondra (Alice Braga), who dreams of making it in the fashion industry, Mike is content to skate by -- until a chance encounter with strung-out lawyer Laura (Emily Mortimer) leads to a near-impossible accident in which the gun of one of Mike's students, police officer Joe (Max Martini) is discharged, smashing the glass window of Mike's establishment. In seemingly unrelated plot threads, Mike is sought after by shady fight promoter Marty Brown (Ricky Jay) as the undercard fighter in a match that could net him 50 grand, and also makes the acquaintance of just-past-his-prime actor Chet Frank (played by just-past-his-prime Tim Allen) when he defends him from some drunken hoods, leading to a job offer as a fight choreography consultant on Chet's latest film, as well as an offer of financial assistance from his manager Jerry (Joe Mantegna).

It doesn't take a red belt or even a black belt to know something is rotten in the state of LA, and that the movie folks and the fight promoter folks are hungering for a pound of flesh. Redbelt's symbolism and theme are apparent from the very first image, in which two white marbles and one black marble are dropped into a hat -- the fighter who chooses the black marble will be handicapped in the match (i.e., one arm tied behind his back). One is reminded of a shell game on the city streets, where the odds are stacked in the dealer's favor every time. The questions Mike faces are who are the con men, and which of the balls is black?

Mamet sprinkles plenty of red herrings and suspicious hints in the narrative -- there's the cocky magician (Randy Couture), a Brazilian fight promoter (Rodrigo Santoro) who happens to be Sondra's brother, the faxing of a document of fighting rules that may or may not constitute property theft, a gold watch that might be stolen goods, and walk-on parts by Mamet standbys (David Paymer, Rebecca Pidgeon, Jay, Mantegna) as affable managers, cultured wives, sympathetic loan sharks. Yep, it's as fishy as a salmon processing plant, and it's saying something that Laura the lawyer turns out to be the most honest of the bunch.

Mamet is clearly plugged into the ideal of martial arts in its purest form: as a guide for living, a philosophical striving for nobility. For Mike, taking part in competition is defeat, and honoring the sanctity of the martial arts code is worth disgracing oneself (or in the case of one character, dying) for. Occupying nearly every frame of the movie, Ejiofor is the eye in the center of the storm, beleaguered, hustled, and eventually pounded, and yet never lacking in dignity. Mamet's skills as a director have improved over the years; even though his environments and staging still have the whiff of the theater about them, he knows how to throw in nifty visual touches, as when the lights of a drug store wink off in the span of time it takes a wiper to move across a windshield, or when a vicious knife fight is presented from two perspectives -- fast-cutting confusion when it happens, and fluid, almost balletic precision when it is viewed on a security camera tape in the aftermath.

Does it all hold together? Not quite. Once all the cards are played and the veil is parted, there are enough holes in the plot to riddle a slab of cheese, and for all the machinations, Mamet's nervy way with language doesn't come through very often. A few of the exchanges have the old Glengarry Glen Ross spice to them ("The fuck do I care?" is a common refrain), but Mamet is too busy manuevering his pawns into place to truly savor the dialogue. Normally one can enjoy the grace notes Mamet throws into his characters; here they're all ciphers, and if no one seems trustworthy (even if they are), it's because it's difficult to trust blanks. Needless to say, Mike is forced into the ring, though not in the way you might expect, and the finale pits him against a world-class Brazilian fighter in an offstage brawl that loses him his 50 G's but preserves his honor. After all, it's not about winning, but doing the right thing, and the sentiment is a welcome antidote to the typical Hollywood ending in which the hero gets it all -- too bad the ending is filmed like a low-rent Rocky, with everyone in the crowd, friend and foe and competitor alike, rising up as one to pay tribute to the honorable fighter, and you can be sure that a red belt will be involved. When the finishing move in the climax is cribbed straight from a Jackie Chan comedy, you have to roll your eyes a bit at the shlockiness of it all, which runs counter to Mamet's otherwise bracing look at the games people play. "There is no situation that you can't turn to your advantage," Mike says early on, and by the end of Redbelt, that moral unfortunately sounds less than a sage piece of hard-earned wisdom than it does something that your typical action hero lunkhead would say.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Light Metal: "Iron Man"

Iron Man (2008, Dir. Jon Favreau)

Jim Rhodes: That's the coolest thing I've ever seen.
Tony Stark: Not bad, huh?

Among the ever-growing pantheon of movie superheroes based on Marvel comics, Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) is unique -- rich as Bruce Wayne but ten times the wiseass, brilliant as Reed Richards but way hipper, as human as Peter Parker but with more grown-up concerns -- a drinking problem and assorted pieces of shrapnel lying inches away from his heart, for example. It's only fitting then that the first in what will surely be many films featuring the character is the first superhero film for grown-ups that we've seen in a while.

Oh sure, we've seen plenty of "mature" superhero movies -- Batman Begins and The Punisher, just to name two. But subtract the grim trappings of those films and you're essentially left with adolescent wish fantasies. In Batman's sex-less universe, the prospect of a mature relationship with a woman would seem just as outlandish as, well, dressing up as a bat to fight crime. Likewise, the Punisher is too busy cracking skulls to even contemplate a romantic entanglement (and if Thomas Jane couldn't get excited at the prospect of Rebecca Romjin in the film version, then there's simply no hope).

There's plenty of fun kid stuff happening in Jon Favreau's Iron Man, but at the heart of it all (no pun intended) is Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), and just as the character of Tony Stark took '40s-era Howard Hughes as its initial inspiration, so too does the film, as it harkens back to the breezy fun of '40s Hollywood action potboilers. Following the spirit of the Iron Man comic (if not the time period, as the original was set during Vietnam), the story traces Stark's spiritual awakening. Weapons manufacturer mogul, genius inventor, Malibu resident, and all-around playboy, Stark thinks nothing of bedding beauties from Vanity Fair magazine and turning his private jet into a strip club, complete with willing stewardesses, but when he's abducted by a terrorist cabal known as the "Ten Rings" during a trip to Afghanistan, and ordered to construct a version of his company's latest and deadliest missile, he comes to see the folly of building weapons that everyone, including the bad guys, can get their hands on. Wounded and kept alive by a chest-plate magnet that prevents shrapnel from entering his heart, he befriends the wry, moral Yinsen (Shaun Toub, making the most of his small role), and decides to outsmart his captors by building the prototype of what will eventually become the new armored suit he will use to fight terrorists (industrial as well as ideological).

An American millionaire saving the lives of innocents in Afghanistan utilizing state-of-the-art gadgetry? Put that way, it sounds dicey, but fortunately Favreau is more interested in Tony Stark the man than Tony Stark the idealist. Riffing and joking like there's no tomorrow, Downey makes the movie -- he's a wiseass, but a wiseass with a soul. When Stark sets about perfecting his suit with the help of his computer Jarvis (voiced by Paul Bettany) and the silent little helper 'bots in his lab, the film reaches a state of daffy grace, as Stark goes through a painful trial-and-error process with each successive experiment. A near-seamless mix of practical effects and CGI, the suit is an impressive creation, and although you always face a problem when you have a superhero whose features are hidden when he's suited up, Downey's presence more than compensates. In past roles, he perfected his ability to be both irreverent and sincere, and both attributes serve him well here.

Favreau, who cut his teeth on whip-smart confections like Swingers, isn't an ace visual stylist or pop mythologist, but his strength -- letting his actors have fun -- plays right into Downey's (and the film's) strengths. The characters get plenty of opportunities to engage in old-school repartee, with one-liners that are sexy as well as funny. All the best lines belong to Downey ("Give me a Scotch, I'm starving"), and he strikes sparks with Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, Stark's Girl Friday. Some might see Paltrow's character as a major step backward following on the heels of empowered heroines and female superheroes in recent Marvel films (speaking of heels, she sports some doozies in this flick), but at least she isn't reduced to damsel-in-distress mode at the end of the film, and her snappy comebacks to Downey suggest that the two will eventually be equals in love, if not social stature.

Better still is Jeff Bridges as Obidiah Stane, Stark's co-partner at the company. While it becomes apparent pretty quickly where Stane's allegiances lie (warning: a businessman with a bald head and a long beard in a suit is not to be trusted), Bridges underplays the part nicely, his trademark drawl and ice-blue eyes more sinister than any histrionics. The only weak link in the cast turns out to be Terrence Howard as Jim Rhodes, Stark's Pentagon liason and future partner-in-heroism -- affable and loose-limbed, Howard is too laid-back to convince as a top-ranking Air Force colonel.

For a superhero movie, Iron Man is thankfully scant on eardrum-busting action sequences. The first two major setpieces, both set in Afghanistan, are zippy, rousing, and to-the-point. Favreau maintains the human element even when the effects get hot and heavy -- a breathless chase involving two U.S. Air Force jets and Iron Man is nicely punctuated when Iron Man gets a call on his cell phone from a suspicious Rhodes ("What the hell is that noise?" "I'm driving with the top down"). Things only bog down at the big finish, in which Iron Man takes on an enemy in a gargantuan powered-up suit; superhero movies these days seem to feel the need to tack on a climax that involves mass destruction, noisy explosions, and soaring orchestral surges on the soundtrack, and Iron Man sadly cannot escape this particular paradigm. Fortunately the denouement is a delight, as Stark, giddy with the realization that the mysterious "Iron Man" has become a celebrity, wrestles with the idea of revealing his identity at a press conference ("I'm not the hero type ... clearly ..."). Iron Man won't change your life and it doesn't try to; instead, it delivers on the wit and sophistication, two elements you don't find in many action extravganzas. Superheroes may appear and disappear from the scene, but men like Tony Stark, with their devil-may-care charm and human foibles, are sorely needed.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

SFIFF '08: "Not By Chance"

Gridlocked: Not By Chance (2007, Dir. Philippe Barcinski)

"We are all particles. We move. That's what we do. We attract and repel."
-- Enio, Not By Chance

What does it say about world cinema when the latest export from Brazil (São Paulo, to be exact) could easily be mistaken for a Wong Kar-Wai movie? Perhaps everything, perhaps nothing. When a film like Mongol borrows its aesthetic and plotting from Gladiator, and a Thai film like The Unseeable (which I caught at the recent Asian-American film festival) is more M. Night Shyamalan than Bangkok Dangerous (getting remade as a Nic Cage potboiler, by the way), it's clear that filmmaking's cultural and ethnic boundaries are breaking down, or going very gray.

As a believer in Mikhail Bakhtin's theories on multivocality, though, I'm all for these collisions of time and place and influence. If other arts have become a goulash of influences and stolen motifs, why not do the DJ mash and revel in the odd combinations that result when you throw everything in?

Which is not to say that Not By Chance, the first feature-length film by shorts director Philippe Barcinski, is a confused mess. In its precise intersection of individuals and tragic events, it's Crash minus the hysterics. In its laid-back romanticism, it's an antidote to recent Brazilian films like City of God which launched Mean Streets-style filmmaking into the stratosphere with its presentation of a lawless, bombed-out São Paulo. Not By Chance is São Paulo rehabilitated as urban wonderland, sometimes dangerous, oftentimes lonely, but with a hint of reconciliaton at the end of the road.

Yes, road: streets and stoplights and traffic jams are the province of Enio (Leonardo Medeiros), a supremely competent but otherwise socially withdrawn traffic controller who holds the fate of the city's daily traffic in his hands. From his lonely darkened outpost, he presides over every intersection in the city via spycams and computer readouts of avenues and alleys, playing God to motorists everywhere. Waxing poetically about the fluid dynamics of traffic, this sad-sack soul is a dead ringer for the intelligent, lost bachelors who populate Wong Kar Wai movies –- a man lacking connections to everything, including himself. What he needs is a random element in his personal fluid formula, and that element arrives in the form of his chipper daughter Bia (Rita Batata). When Enio's ex-wife is killed in a traffic accident, Bia shows up on his doorstep, and he is energized by her spontaneity even as he is frightened by it.

The second plot thread revolves around twentysomething Pedro (Rodrigo Santoro), son of a pool table manufacturer, young and in love and content with his modest lot, ready to inherit his father's business even as he dreams of competing in pool tournaments. He whiles away the time by calculating every possible shot he can take on a pool table, dissecting a complete game into a series of geometric equations. When the accident that claims the life of Enio's ex-wife also leaves Pedro bereft, he seeks solace in a most unusual place -– beautiful, upscale commodity trader Lucia (Leticia Sabatella), an expert at coffee beans who could use a break from her own overcaffeinated lifestyle.

Not By Chance is a slick affair -– the opening helicopter shots of the city, with the film's titles floating by on the sides of skyscrapers, are a direct lift from David Fincher's Panic Room, and suggests that we might be in for a heavy-handed thriller or drama. We're spared from such a fate, although Barcinski sometimes gets a little cute. At one point, a character's fate is decided when she decides to run out of the house instead of tarry for two seconds, and like a photographic afterimage, we see what would have happened if she lingered for those extra two seconds -- it's an episode of Hesitate, Lola, Hesitate. All the usual elements of urban fantasia are in place: snapshots of lovers that gain totemic significance, a burnished afternoon spent at the local park, the idea that a career-minded businesswoman would fall for a young ne-er-do-well in the span of a single day. But above all, Barcinski is a graceful director, his short-film training making him adept at indicating a cliché and moving on before we're overcome by the hoariness of it. Like Wong Kar-Wai, he is a breezy humanist: none of these characters are necessarily complex, and yet he has sympathy for them as they tend to life on their own obsessive terms. While Wong's plots are overwhelmed by saturated cinematography and his characters' oblique ruminations, Barcinski is more of a straight shooter. He shoots in simple, unadorned yet attractive style; best are the passages in which characters are allowed to walk in and out of focus, their intimate moments crystallized seconds at a time.

The subplot involving Enio and Bia fares better, with Medeiros and Batata enjoying a bemused, touching chemistry, although if you can't see its conclusion from a hundred miles off (hint: traffic controller), you need to bone up on your clichés. More interesting is how the two story threads converge at the end, but not in the way you might think. Not By Chance concludes with a thermos of coffee on a doorstep, and two people biking down an inner-city freeway –- in other words, transport this film to Hong Kong, New York, or virtually any other metropolis in the world, and you would have the same exact impact (although to be fair, maybe it wouldn't be as sensual or hip without the Brazilian pop and electronica soundtrack). If you see the universality of Not By Chance as a sign that the world is becoming one great mass of McDonald's-like conformity, I couldn't necessarily argue with you; but I hold out hope that even a movie that refers to other movies from other places can find its own identity, and its own little slice of heaven.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

SFIFF '08: "Mongol"

Genghis Begins, or the Wrath of Khan: Mongol (2007, Dir. Sergei Bodrov)

We've come a long way, baby. Or have we? In 1956 Howard Hughes took a stab at the Genghis Khan myth when he produced The Great Conquerer, which is generally acknowledged as the worst film John Wayne ever starred in. Filmed in Utah (where, as urban legend has it, radioactive soil caused the eventual deaths of Wayne and dozens of other crewmembers to cancer), burdened with the, ahem, unusual sight of John Wayne playing the great Mongol in a Fu Manchu mustache, The Great Conquerer belongs squarely in the "so bad it's hilarious" category of shlock moviemaking, and we haven't even mentioned Susan Hayward as a spirited Mongol highlander.

Flash forward half a century later, and in our search for the latest exotic, far-flung, mystical land to canonize, the wheel has spun around to land on Mongolia once again. So instead of a big-budget Hollywood production starring a Caucasian cowboy as the Khanmeister, we get a joint Russian-Khazakstan-Mongolia production helmed by a German, with a Japanese man (Asano Tadanobu) as the Khanmeister. It's progress of a sort, I guess.

The film starts promisingly: it is the 12th century, in the border country of Tangut, and a lone man sits in a dank prison cell. The harsh strains of Mongolian throat music blend with the requisite symphonic score on the soundtrack as we're taken back to the steppes of Mongolia 20 years before, when the man is a 9-year old named Temudgin (Odnyam Odsuren), being groomed by his father Eusegi (Ba Sen), the local khan, for an arranged marriage to a chieftain's daughter.The plan goes awry when Temudgin's heart is stolen by the willful, free-spirited Borte (Bayartsetseg Erdenebat), and a marriage pact is made. When Eusegi is poisoned by a rival clan, his former tribesmen take advantage of the situation, imprisoning Temudgin and awaiting the day he becomes a man so they can kill him, as custom dictates. With that setup, we're off and running, ready for a tale of "revenge is best served hot."

Mongol is essentially a superhero origin story, as we witness Temudgin's transformation into the cunning strategist, romantic figure, national leader, and ferocious warrior we all know and love. Packed with incident and narrative, the plot rockets from point A to point Z at breakneck speed; you would probably get whiplash if you turned your head away from the screen for a moment. And therein lies the problem. Batman Begins came to mind more than a few times as I was watching: both films chronicle the painful education of a hero, and both suffer from similar pacing issues. Each scene plays out briskly, and the editing rhythms get same-y after a while. When Temudgin is reunited with Borte (Khulan Chuluun) as an adult, we're meant to swoon at the passion of it all, but when we cut away to marauding horsemen as soon as the couple share a single kiss, how can we work up any heat?

There's plenty of combat, of course, and the battle scenes, replete with CGI weather effects and arterial blood sprays, should satisfy most slaughterhounds. Better still is Sun Honglei as Jamukha, Temudgin's blood brother and eventual greatest rival for control of the burgeoning Mongolian empire. Of all the actors, Sun seems to be the only one who is aware that this is all a bunch of hooey; armed with a proto-punk buzzcut that is sharper than any blade wielded in the film, he chews the scenery to pieces, his wry little twists of the head and musical mutterings serving as punchlines. But best of all is an almost anecdotal passage in which a Chinese monk attempts to help the imprisoned Temudgin by transporting a bone necklace charm to Borte. As the monk wordlessly crosses mountains and deserts on foot, dogged in his determination even as his body slowly fails, one finally catches the whiff of genuine mythmaking.

Unfortunately, in a film that is all about myth creation, that's as much as you're going to get. In its rush to present the life and times of the Khan, critical events are glossed over or deleted completely. One moment Temudgin is a nomad on the run from his treacherous former tribesmen; the next he has a clan of his own. At one point he is a fugitive from the Tangut Kingdom with nothing to his name; the next he has assembled an army for a St. Crispin's Day moment vs. Jamukha's numerically superior forces. Bounced from event to event like a ping-pong ball, this Genghis is a cipher. Tadanobu Asano is a fine, quirky actor who's best in roles that take advantage of his natural reticence; as Temudgin, he manages to be soulful and noble, but the script allows him to be little else. Khulan Chuluun fares slightly better as Borte – if it's a good thing to be "better" when you're playing the straitjacketed role of dutiful, ever-faithful wife.

Mongol does exactly what it intends to do; it serves as the launching pad for a sequel or two (the end of the film practically begs for the subtitle "To be continued…"), and does it with what passes for epic style these days – a few monumental vistas, a few faces covered with grit, a few shouts of anger and slashes of sword, appropriate swells of music on the soundtrack, and a storyline that would snuggle comfortably inside a comic (Conan the Barbarian, anyone?). But whatever your reaction to the film, you can still marvel at the magnificent scenery and dream your own dream of a epic that would be more intimate and substantial than what we see on screen. We've come a long way, baby.