JANUARY 22, 2010
I knew nothing about Legion until Comic Con, where the bulk of the elevators we used over the 5 days were adorned with the awesome shot of Paul Bettany with angel wings and assault rifles. I also covered the roundtables, where, amongst other things, one of the female stars kept looking at me while answering other people's questions (and I know for sure that I didn't have any food in my beard - because I checked), AND won me over by saying her favorite movie was Halloween (and stressed that she meant the original). And then the trailer made it look like any number of Carpenter type films (motley group holed up in one locale), with a plot that seemed patched together from Demon Knight, Terminator, and The Prophecy. In short - it held a lot of promise to be a pretty kick ass film.
Sadly it is not. It's got moments of greatness (or at least, really good-ness), but they are stretched out (and largely spoiled by the trailers anyway) far too thin, and in between are some seriously dull and borderline laughable "character" moments that always feel like little more than an attempt to add dimension to the characters so that critics won't bitch that it's just wall to wall action.
But that's exactly what this movie should be! 15 minutes in, we get our first demon-angel-monster thing, and from that point on, the film should be a pretty fast paced romp, slowing down for minor plot/character moments that last no more than five minutes. But I swear to Christ, the movie stops for FORTY GODDAMN MINUTES so that each character can have a heart to heart conversation with one of the other characters. Tyrese talks to Charles Dutton, Paul Bettany talks to Lucas Black, Dennis Quaid talks to Kate Walsh, Adrianne Palicki talks to Black, Tyrese talks to Walsh's daughter, and so on. The only reason that it finally returned to action is because I'm pretty sure writer/director Scott Stewart ran out of possible combinations. Look, I'm all for character development, and any one of these scenes on its own would be fine (or even all of them, save maybe the painfully stupid one between Tyrese and the girl, had they been spread out a bit). But when your movie has Charles Dutton whipping a frying pan at an old woman's head in the first reel, you can't expect an audience to sit patiently for the entire middle portion of your film while everyone airs out their backstories and "meaningful" character flaws. Aren't they in danger? Why are they all just standing around yapping? And why aren't the demon people attacking?
If I had to guess, I would wager that since Stewart comes from an (impressive) effects background, that he was worried he would be accused of "showing off" had the film been a non-stop effects showcase. And since he has planned a trilogy, I also wouldn't be surprised if he was trying to get as much story out of the way now so that he could focus more on action in the next two films. However, both approaches fail him. The effects ARE good, and thus we want more of them, and it's doubtful that the film will connect with enough audiences to get those followups.
And that's a shame, because there is a lot of potential here. Bettany is a great action hero (when he's in it - for a top billed star he doesn't seem to have as much screen time as some of the others, and after his introduction he disappears for about 25 minutes or so), and it's hinted that his character may not be as pure and good as the others would hope. Likewise, the great Kevin Durand (woefully underused) is his equal, and despite being the film's de facto main villain, he doesn't seem to be out for the count yet. And they barely even scratch the surface in regards to the baby that the whole movie centers around; Terminator at least gave us glimpses of what John Connor would do, but Legion never really explains what Palicki's child is supposed to accomplish (or why she was chosen to carry it, for that matter). Most trilogy openers work as a standalone film, but this one is maddeningly left open for followups.
I also enjoyed the supporting cast, though most of them won't be around for the sequel. Stewart does a fine job of putting them all on equal terms, so that you're not sure which ones will die, who will turn (come on, you know there's gotta be a turncoat in the group), and who will save the day. One character's death in particular shocked me; it's someone that always seems to survive a film, and they are dispatched long before the conclusion (and somewhat unceremoniously) as well. And I'm always happy to see Dennis Quaid in something, though they should have just cast Meat Loaf, since Quaid (who is friends with Loaf in real life) is channeling him most of the time anyway. There are also some funny lines here and there, mostly courtesy of Tyrese (when asked where the insect swarm went, he replies "Are you asking me to comment on the nature of a pestilence?" Heh.).
But the cast makes the abundance of generic character development even more frustrating. Most of the actors are guys we love and don't really need a backstory to latch onto in order to care about them. Quaid, for example - the guy's been around forever and has that everyman, salt of the earth quality to him. So why stop the movie to have him yammer on about how he owns the place because he thought there would be a mall opening nearby and that his wife left him because of it and now he carries around a lighter she gave him even though he quit smoking and blah blah blah... we see Quaid, we're on his side. Done. Ironically, the character that gets the least amount of characterization is Palicki, who audiences are least likely to be familiar with (she's on Friday Night Lights, a terrific TV show that no one watches) and yet is pretty much the most important character. If the characters were unique and interesting, it would be one thing, but they're all the generic-est of generic archetypes, so despite all of Stewart's efforts, in the end, after boring me for 40 minutes with their jibber-jabber, the only reason I cared about any of them is because I cared about the actors playing them.
At least it succeeds on a technical level. Again, the effects are pretty great, and the action scenes are easy to follow (sad that this has to be worth mentioning at all, but that's how it is these days) and largely exciting. There's a great sequence where Bettany and the others have to keep a parade of cars from getting to the diner, and it's both exciting and somewhat unique (it's like Michael Bay's version of a tower defense game). There seems to be some missing scenes here and there (Palicki and Black have a fight, and then they are OK with each other a few minutes later - expect many a "this was cut for time" scene on the DVD), but it's otherwise well edited, and the surround mix is terrific. Really, the only legitimate problem with this movie is the bizarrely stunted pace and far too dependent on sequels approach, but unfortunately those are pretty big problems.
(Another big problem - having a killer kid cause havoc and then killing him off-screen. Weaksauce, five yard penalty!)
Part of me wants the film to succeed, so that at least one of those sequels can come to pass and maybe deliver on the promise of the concept. But part of me also wants the film to tank, because maybe (optimism alert!) it would give studios and filmmakers some pause before greenlighting another film that's designed to only tell 1/3 of a story. You look at New Hope, or Scream, or Matrix - those films were all open and shut. There was room to explore the stories, and maybe a few minor questions (really just New Hope there, i.e. why is Vader in that suit), but if they tanked, their fans would still be able to enjoy a more or less complete story. I feel Legion doesn't quite get there, and worse, it wasn't exciting/interesting enough for me to really care if it ever does.
What say you?