Reviews of Films I Haven’t Seen: Napoleon

I had originally meant to review The Equalizer 3, a bloodthirsty action thriller set in Italy. Instead, I have chosen to write about Napoleon, a bloodthirsty action thriller set partly in Italy. One of the great things about reviewing films I haven’t seen is that I can opine about hundreds of movies.

To be fair, Napoleon appears to be more than just an action thriller, but for a historical epic, it certainly seems to have a lot of slow-motion shots of men bleeding to death and getting thrown by massive explosions. Watching the trailer, I kept expecting Bruce Willis to save the princess from the guillotine while shrieking “yippi-ki-yay, mes putains de mères!”

Director Ridley Scott has undertaken an ambitious project here, and it would have to be nothing less. The subject’s been done before, with Abel Gance’s 1927 silent masterpiece considered one of the greatest films ever made. Haven’t seen that, either. What kind of film buff am I, anyway? Pathetic.

Indeed, there have been dozens of movies about Napoleon, from 1960’s Austerlitz, to 1970’s Waterloo, and even Woody Allen’s 1975 Tolstoy parody Love and Death. The latter featured a scene in which Napoleon berates his chef about perfecting the Napoleon pastry before the Duke of Wellington develops Beef Wellington. The future of Europe is at stake!

I mention this because Napoleon has been depicted in film so often that he’s become a parody of himself—the avatar Napoleon syndrome, the pop psychologist’s diagnosis for the impact of short stature on men’s egos. Scott had to overcome all of these expectations and deliver a compelling experience. Scott appears to have succeeded, though. The film looks incredible.

Like Denzel Washington in The Equalizer 3, Joachim Phoenix’s Napoleon is an understated mass murderer. I don’t think audiences appreciate the acting talent that fuels both roles. For Washington, it’s easy to write The Equalizer 3 off as a “paycheck picture.” While no one should ever begrudge Washington the right to cash in on his reputation, the reality is that it takes an immense amount of talent to pull off a role like the Equalizer. Washington is understated, but deadly: A man finally at peace in his new Italian home, but ready to explode when his new friends are threatened. He exerts a gravitational pull in every scene. Not every actor has those kinds of chops.

Similarly, Phoenix seems to have reached deep into his reservoir of talent to carry a film about a psychologically insecure military genius who willed himself onto the throne of France. I’d say an Oscar nom is in the offing for Phoenix, and if life were fair, for Washington, too, but that’s not how things work.

Apple TV is one of the main backers of Napoleon, which makes some sense if you know much about Napoleon, one of the original “Think Different” leaders of the last half millennia. Like Apple, which triggered a technological revolution with computers “for the rest of us” and a genius-inspired phone that brings the world to every pocket, Napoleon sought to bring a uniform code of law—complete with basic rights of all citizens—to the continent of Europe.

For this transgression against grotesque class privilege and devastating inequality, Napoleon was vilified by the reigning monarchs of the time. In a way, he was the original “equalizer,” incinerating the bad guys to rebalance the scales of wealth and justice. The kingdoms of Europe banded together to wipe Napoleon off the face of the earth, and mostly got their sorry asses handed to them over and over again. The tech industry has harbored a similar hatred for Apple, which ruined everything by being better and exposing the consumer public to the mediocrity of l’ancien tech régime. And, like those nineteenth century losers, a lot of Apple competitors got run out of business.

So, there’s a lot to not see here. Maybe don’t check it out.