David Pearce’s review published on Letterboxd:
"All Mongols fear the thunder"
A fairly shallow film attempting to utilises its subject matter as a thin veneer meant to masquerade what is ultimately an incredibly timely work, imitating many of the tropes of mid-2000s action cinema from both Hollywood and Russia. Focus-grouped by the Ministry of Culture financing departments of four separate countries, Mongol is simultaneously agreeable and indistinct while also overblown and muddled.
The only aspect of the storytelling that I found particularly successful was the use of voice-over narration, a detail I often feel weakens a film but in this case the story is aided by its presence. The narration establish a foreboding atmosphere and instils a sense of fatalism as these are the most crucial memories as recounted by a prisoner. The film's pace necessitated narration as the prisoner's memories often jumped in time, requiring that we be quickly given exposition of the location and purpose of the scene. This does consequently mean that the few instances of voice-over narration primarily serve as a transparent means of delivering exposition and its usage is limited to opening and closing flashbacks, though as stated while very clearly a narrative shortcut the narration did add to the film's tone and our connection with the protagonist. Though what's been discussed thus far already hints at many of the film's more glaring structural shortcomings. Namely that, in attempting to tell a comprehensive account of Temudjin's (Genghis Khan's) life, the movie often jumps forward in time and indicates this jump in various ways. On rare occasions there is text on screen with a date, sometimes a passage of time is highlighted in narration, most often the lead just looks slightly older and we're meant to assume time has passed. But this inconsistency is minor relative to what this means for the film's narrative structure: broadly speaking the film jumps between notable events in Temudjin's life that serve to demonstrate some aspect of his character (his generosity, his love for his wife, his fighting ability, etc). There's somewhat of a strong initial hook with the vendetta with Targutai, which translates to a through-line with Temudjin's conflict between the allied Jamukha and Targutai, but a lot of the film's time between these engagements is occupied with entirely tangential stories that paint a fairly inexact and very complimentary portrait of the historical figure of Genghis Khan. The entire film feels in service to understanding Temudjin, clear from the narration and the stories that only serve to illustrate his characteristics, but it's pretty ineffectual as, in only showcasing his most noble qualities, Temudjin becomes a fairly tired hero archetype. He's as wide as an ocean but as shallow as a puddle, we are told a lot about him but it ends up being inconsequential and all the information is typical.
More ineffectual and plain than the story would be the film's style which is inescapably rooted in the time. This is most apparent in action where the film is distinctly conflicted between two extremes of style, anti-real exaggeration and hyper-realistic grit. During action the acting and exaggerated gestures seem to suggest a kind of theatric interpretation of combat almost like wuxia (there are even some instances of wire-work when extras are batted away with the protagonist's sword). This East Asian fantasy action choreography is at odds with the approach to editing which is brisk, almost in an attempt to hide the exaggerated acting. In editing there is also the introduction of slow motion and digital blood squibs which explicitly evoke 300. If I were to theorise, it seems as though the film was shot (in 2005-2006) to feature traditionally East Asian style action, and when 300 was released, another war focused period film about particularly gory battles, the decision was made to imitation how that film was edited. On paper this clash of style sounds almost comically mismatched but in practise what it amounts to is a lot of digital screen shake and constant cutting, the film essentially feels like a Bourne movie during action, that is to say it is generally disorientating. And vitally none of what has been discussed thus far really speaks to the film's narrative that is based on rich Mongolian heritage, and the film's style rarely evokes that history. Obviously costumes and locations, surprisingly some throat singing is present in the score which set the tone excellently, but really the film's cinematography and editing doesn't attempt to reflect the setting. This is except in rare instances where the film strives for introspection wherein wide shots are utilised, allowing for actors framed against the beautiful mountainous scenery. In these brief moments the film feels separate from any influence from contemporary cinema, but these moments are fleeting.
This isn't the grand Mongolian epic that it so clearly wanted to be, but at the same time it's not the complete mess such an international co-production could have produced. Certainly there are traits of a failing co-production of various nations, both in how safe the film is and in the clash of incompatible styles, but for the majority of the movie (particularly the more subdued moments) this context is easy to ignore. Mongol is a generally agreeable and indistinct action movie as it was designed to be, far from a disaster but further from being worth investing two hours into.