Joaquin Phoenix and Ridley Scott turn Napoleon into a violent epic starring a petty brat

Scott goes all-in on the battle scenes and Phoenix plays the emperor like a Comic-Con king.

click to enlarge Joaquin Phoenix plays the "Little Corporal." - Apple TV
Apple TV
Joaquin Phoenix plays the "Little Corporal."
At one point in Ridley Scott’s new biopic Napoleon, Napoleon Bonaparte yells at someone, “You think you’re so smart just because you have boats!”

You wouldn’t expect something so bratty and petulant to come out of the mouth of the legendary French commander and leader. But you would expect something so bratty and petulant to come out of the mouth of Joaquin Phoenix, the guy who’s playing him in this film.

Having Phoenix, that prankish loose cannon (his Best Actor Oscar win for playing the Joker almost seems like it was prophesied), assume the role of Bonaparte feels like another one of Scott’s crazy casting moves, adding some chaos to an otherwise stodgy true story. Lest we forget, he brought Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Al Pacino and a ridiculous-looking, cuckoo-bananas Jared Leto (another scenery-chewing Oscar winner who once played Batman’s archnemesis) together a couple years ago for House of Gucci and had them overact their heads off. While some might’ve thought that movie was a campy clusterfuck, I was quite amused by how Scott refused to rein in these A-listers, letting them add more absurdity to that insane story of ‘80s-era greed and murder.

When you think about it, it makes perfect sense for Scott to link up again with Phoenix (who also served as a producer) to play Bonaparte. More than two decades ago, Scott had Phoenix play the power-mad emperor antagonist in Gladiator. The one-time “rapper” went all in on making his character the sort of petty, pervy, swole-in-the-chest tyrant you just couldn’t wait for Russell Crowe to slide his foot way up his ass.

Phoenix is still a petty, pervy, swole-in-the-chest tyrant in Napoleon. But this time, he injects his performance with empathy. Bonaparte may be a stubborn son-of-a-bitch, engaging in bloody battle after bloody battle like a man staging an intense, neverending game of chess with his opponents. But he’s always a dedicated, determined warrior, fighting even when things clearly aren’t gonna go his way.

It is fascinating watching Phoenix play Bonaparte like he’s a gamer who’s constantly on the verge of rage quitting. While he’s surrounded by actors (Rupert Everett, Swimming Pool’s Ludivine Sagnier, A Prophet’s Tahar Rahim) who at least are acting like they’re living in the time the movie is set, there’s practically nothing French or noble about Phoenix’s Bonaparte. Even when he becomes emperor of France, he mostly acts like he’s in cosplay — a Comic-Con king.

As with most period piece biopics, this is really a love story. When dude isn’t in battle, he has quite the toxic relationship with his wife Josephine (Vanessa Kirby). Napoleon is crazy about this gal, even when she’s creeping around with another guy while he’s abroad. (Napoleon also had side chicks, so she feels her creeping is justified.) Phoenix is at his nuttiest whenever he’s around Kirby and her icy-ass stare. Whether they’re engaging in bitter button-pushing or messy baby-making (Phoenix really makes Bonaparte look like a rabid dog in heat during love scenes), the pair are two broken people who are clearly made for each other, even when they have to divorce because she can’t give him a son.

But enough about Phoenix and his wacky ass. Napoleon has Scott once again making an action epic (which his old friend Stanley Kubrick wanted to make but never got around to doing) that is equal parts majestic and bombastic. As the movie focuses on six major battles that Bonaparte fought, the battle sequences are vast, unpredictable and gory as hell. Even horses aren’t safe from the limb-shattering madness. 

It’s almost like the 85-year-old Scott continues to make these vivid, violent, visually voluminous movies because no one else really does them anymore. (Scholars and historians be damned — he’s on his David Lean shit!) While most blockbusters look like they’ve been cobbled together on somebody’s iPad, the practical effects, sweeping locales (captured by veteran cinematographer Dariusz Wolski) and minimal CGI/VFX that Scott works with on Napoleon almost feels like a middle finger to this age of AI. Considering how the movie will be shown on IMAX screens and in 70mm, he really wants you to get up close and personal with the colossal carnage that goes down, whether it’s on the battlefield or in the bedroom. 

Basically, what Scott is saying with Napoleon is that, from the action to the acting, no computer program could ever come up with a movie this entertainingly batshit.

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