Ridley Scott is 85 years old and has directed, among other things, four feature films in the last five years, one of which was heavily reshot in the few weeks before it was to be released. Now, the relative quality of those movies may indeed be up for debate, but no one can say the man lacks for energy or indeed vision. Currently, he’s on a press tour for his latest work, a biopic of sorts of Napoleon Bonaparte, and cinephiles of all stripes on social media have been delighting in his irascibility as he routinely implores his critics to “Get a life.” It’s oddly appropriate — perhaps ironic, depending on what you think of the film — behavior for Napoleon specifically, as Scott has at least attempted to create an almost satirical portrait of a man who was undoubtedly a visionary but ultimately made a litany of tactical errors due to ego and arrogance.
The film begins in 1793, as the French Revolution is in full swing; in fact, we open on Marie Antoinette’s head being quite ceremoniously removed from her person. It’s energetic, infectious, and more than a little bit funny. Unfortunately, the film then rather hurriedly settles into biopic mode for a stretch, landing lightly on historical events like the famous Reign of Terror in a quick rundown that finds Napoleon (Joaquin Phoenix) firmly ensconced as France’s latest head of state. In truth, that’s a fine enough approach if your film is more concerned with this man’s interiority, but alas all of Napoleon tends to remain on the surface. The man’s rise to power is immediately followed by a series of quickly sketched military triumphs (the taking of Egypt lasts maybe 90 visually scrumptious but all too brief seconds on screen).
Obviously, the main attraction here is the tantalizing idea of one of our most beloved and idiosyncratic current performers, Phoenix, taking on a role this juicy on such a grand scale. The actor’s work here is largely in the realm of caricature, though, doubling down on pomposity with a little too much snark; even in his dealings with his beloved Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), supposedly the love of his life and the deep-down-he-just-wants-love motivation for all of his actions, he never seems more than possessive and confused. Kirby, for her part, does what she can with what at this runtime is a massively underwritten role.
Clearly, the intent here is of a humorous bent, and in fact, Napoleon is honestly funnier than it is anything else, but the entire film feels rushed, not to mention heavily truncated. Scott reportedly hacked it of some 90-odd minutes that will be restored once Napoleon lands at its final destination, Apple’s streaming service, which is genuinely a hopeful state of affairs — Scott’s long cuts have historically tended to offer vast improvements. But by stripping out what feels like an awful lot of connective tissue and nuance of character, the grand farce of ego and history and thwarted masculinity ends up being much closer to a rote pageant, a by-the-book historical epic that largely plays it safe.
That aside, Scott’s formal abilities clearly have not diminished with age. Napoleon is packed with battle scenes, and while there’s nothing specific here that you haven’t witnessed before, the sheer scale of these sequences and the seemingly casual confidence with which they’ve been achieved is undeniably impressive. Leave it to the guy who basically resurrected this genre for the era of mega-budget studio filmmaking to make the most of the assignment, although there’s a little something lost with the march of time; we’re used to these battle scenes being laced with beheadings and impalements, but artillery and firearm technology has left us with muskets and cannons rather than swords and spears and fire. The fights do become a tad monotonous without the frequent bursts of grue that Ridley made the most of in the likes of Gladiator or Kingdom of Heaven.
In the end, Napoleon is a surprisingly funny affair and a jaunty enough work of blockbuster filmmaking, but one can sense the broader, bolder, more introspective, and yes, even funnier film that’s been trimmed to a length more allegedly suitable for theatrical butt endurance. When other filmmakers — successfully or not — are releasing 220-minute late-in-life historical dramas, Scott’s ruthlessness, ambition, and pragmatism seemingly won’t allow him to take that risk, even when he clearly can do whatever he wants. Whatever the case, that ruthlessness seems to have been a Waterloo of sorts for his own project.
DIRECTOR: Ridley Scott; CAST: Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Tahar Rahim, Ben Miles, Ludivine Sagnier; DISTRIBUTOR: Apple Original Films/Columbia Pictures; IN THEATERS: November 22; RUNTIME: 2 hr. 38 min.