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Movie Review: Napoleon

In theaters November 22, 2023.


“Death is nothing, but to live defeated and inglorious is to die daily.” - Napoleon Bonaparte

Every time I hear Martin Scorsese speak about making movies, particularly the ones centered around gangsters, like Goodfellas, Casino and The Irishman, he always mentions that after each one he never wanted to make another gangster film ever again. Each time he did end up returning to the genre he had to find a specific reason that it should be made at all. It couldn’t ever be the same motivation that made him create the previous stories. I bring this up because when it comes to Ridley Scott, he doesn’t seem to have this issue as he continues to make war epics and has done so since Gladiator in 2000. Since 2000 he has made Black Hawk Down, Kingdom of Heaven, Robin Hood, Exodus: Gods and Kings, The Last Duel and now Napoleon. And to further prove my point, he’s already cast his next movie following Napoleon called Gladiator 2.

Why mention this at all? Well because as big of a fan as I am of Ridley Scott and have been since I was a boy, it’s starting to feel like one long, drawn out epic that refuses to end. This isn’t to say these movies are all bad. Not even close. Kingdom of Heaven for example is severely underrated. But The Last Duel was the last time since Kingdom of Heaven that he managed to separate the one project from the homogenous group of his rinse and repeat formula for war films that always seem to heavily feature swords, shields and horses.

As a longtime fan of his I can find the merit of every movie he’s ever made. Being a fan allows you to look beyond the shortcomings of someone’s work and see it for the strengths it provides rather than simply how it may have fallen short. With this in mind I can find a lot to admire about Napoleon but unfortunately even more that places it directly in the middle of the all too familiar, typical Ridley Scott war movie. He does it well, better than most but as talented at the gangster genre as Scorsese is, he still understands it’s important not to rest on one’s laurels.

The Last Duel feels different from the rest because it has something to say and despite the time it takes place in, the themes are as timely as ever. Napoleon never had to be as profound but what it does focus on never rises beyond that of another generic war epic.

So what is the greatest cinematic sin that Napoleon commits? I would say that in each phase of the story, whether it’s a massive battle sequence or simply two characters talking in the glow of a crackling fire it never manages to become distinct enough from so many other films that carry on just like it. Bringing up Kingdom of Heaven, for the last time I swear, while it may be underrated still has these moments of familiarity. Where it becomes something more is in the performances. I wish I could say the same for Napoleon.

Now at the risk of sounding redundant as hell, nothing about Napoleon is particularly awful, it’s just entirely too middle-of-the-road in nearly every way. The man whose conviction is matched by maybe Daniel Day-Lewis and no one else, Joaquin Phoenix never even manages to showcase just exactly what he is capable of delivering. As Arthur Fleck he was disturbing but undeniably powerful and though his character is so diabolical it was hard to look away. He commanded the screen and earned his way onto that Oscar stage. As Napoleon he feels borderline asleep. He isn’t remarkable nor is he terrible. He’s just there with brief moments that remind you of what he can do but these are nothing more than glimpses. My hopeful for potential Oscar glory was Vanessa Kirby as the vixen, Josephine but her influence as the driving force for Napoleon is at its worst, exaggerated. She is rarely more than a distraction for Napoleon.

I believe one of the things it had to deliver on is making us believe that his devotion and obsession with Josephine was warranted and most importantly believable. We had to believe he would go to war and kill in the name of Josephine as if she were Helen of Troy herself whose very presence with her lover Paris sparked the Trojan War. Josephine feels more like a play thing for him to pout over when she inevitably strays from their marital bed, so to speak. Nothing about the performances stand out as anything but serviceable at best.

As for the battle sequences they are without question the best part of the entire film. As familiar as they may be, it doesn’t negate the fact that they are grand in scale and as violent and merciless as anything Scott has ever done with the exception of The Last Duel which saw him at his most graphic and unforgiving.

At the end of the day Napoleon is a decent enough war film that unfortunately does little to rise above mediocrity. It feels rushed at times despite its runtime and fails to truly demonstrate how power hungry and manipulative Napoleon Bonaparte was. And none of this even touches on the lack of accents that is glaringly obvious and often distracting. I can find the merits of it but overall I just don’t see much of a difference between it and so many other war epics, many of which are from the same director. I wonder if I wasn’t already a fan of Scott if my opinion of this movie would be harsher. Maybe I wouldn’t be trying so hard to find the good in it. I guess I can only speculate.

Rated R For: strong violence, some grisly images, sexual content and brief language

Runtime: 158 minutes

After Credits Scene: No

Genre: Action, Adventure, Biography

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Tahar Rahim, Rupert Everett

Directed By: Ridley Scott

Out of 10

Story: 7/ Acting: 7.5/ Directing: 7/ Visuals: 8

OVERALL: 6.5/10

Buy to Own: No


Check out the trailer below:

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