When the closing credits rolled for "Mongol," I expected to see the words "Sponsored by the Mongolian Association for the Rehabilitation of Genghis Khan's Image." This award-bearing foreign film about the Golden Horde's fearsome leader, played by Tadanobu Asano, is sweeping across the American landscape, not with a tale of Genghis the feared conqueror but of Genghis the faithful father. The main lesson you take away is not that Genghis (born Temudjin) had an insatiable appetite for conquest, but that he was such a dedicated, forgiving husband he'd take his wife back even if she were abducted by Dick Cheney.
But that's the second half. The first is all back story. Lots and lots of back story, full of speculation about Temudjin's childhood tribulations -- recently betrothed, the young Temudjin (Odnyam Odsuren) loses his father and status in swift and painful succession. Childhoods of legendary warriors are tough to make interesting. Abel Gance set the bar high with "Napoleon" and its illustrious snowball fight, and most movies have tried in similar ways since to show how their protagonist became such a great leader.
"Mongol" does it with several sequences showing Genghis captured and humiliated, often degraded with excrement. Under the direction of Sergei Bodrov -- who, it must be admitted, was stuck with a particularly wooden child actor to work with -- these instances only stop being unintentionally comic when they become tedious. When the Great Khan grows up, we find him imprisoned yet again, this time by the Tanguts, a people, we are told in an epilogue, that Genghis "wiped from the face of the Earth."
The second half of the movie is just as wretched for Temudjin, who finally gets married to his beloved Borte only to have her variously stolen and given away as he's abused by other leaders he'll eventually smite. Except we never see him do any smiting, and it's a letdown. Just as the earlier scenes are bogged down in too many examples of Temudjin's pitiable childhood, hour two is awash in a sweeping, swashbuckling romance reminiscent of Mel Gibson's "Braveheart" -- without the fine battle scenes.
But it's the first of a proposed trilogy, so perhaps the real smiting starts in part two. "Mongol" is an unconventional historical epic, especially for summer, but it may leave some viewers wondering how it managed to invade their movie theater. (R) 126 min.