In the realm of faceless people writing about movies from the safety of the internet, I like to think I’m one of the more reasonable you’ll find. But I could be wrong. (See?) It’s a point that’s come up before, but it bears repeating: Unlike most people who write about movies online, I’ve spent A LOT of time working in all corners of the film and television industries in virtually every position there is. I know well how hard people work, around the clock, to bring every show to an audience. I try not to take that hard-earned knowledge lightly. Besides, I have friends who still work in film and TV, and I’m not even all the way out myself. I try mighty hard not to put anything on a computer screen that I don’t feel ready to say to someone’s face. On top of all of that, I grew up with movies. I love this stuff as much now as I did when I was young — if not more. It doesn’t make me happy to be unkind. I’m in this to share my enthusiasm, plain and simple.
All of that said, and try as I might, it’s way harder to find new ways to be nice. It’s certainly harder to be funny that way. And sometimes, a movie is put in front of me about which I just can’t find much nice to say and still remain honest.
These are the movies that forced me to be unkind.
If the new sci-fi horror flick Legion is to be believed, God is a woman. We get a brief glimpse into Heaven late in the film, and it looks like a Calvin Klein perfume ad, complete with blue-eyed, white-winged angel men who speak in soft British accents. Not only is that the kind of scene She seems to be into, but God is also as prone to decisions based on rash emotional reactions as any mortal woman can be, only to [spoiler alert!] ultimately change her mind and be willing to make up after the outburst.
See, Legion is about God losing faith in humanity, and sending an army of angels to wipe us off the face of the planet. You wouldn’t think God could be so flighty as to make such a momentous decision and then take it back, but this isn’t a movie for the literal-minded. The guy sitting behind me leaned over to his companion and whispered, “God wouldn’t do that,” and I guess he’d know, so if you’re super-religious you may want to skip this movie. It’s not based in reality.
What it is largely based on, instead, is other movies. In particular, Legion writer/director Scott Stewart should look out for James Cameron, because they’re both out on the promotional trail right now and Legion borrows very heavily from the Terminator movies (among many, many others). Dude, if Cameron finds you, you better hope he’s flattered. When renegade angel Michael touches down in an alleyway, it’s not wrong to expect that he’s a T-800 or T-1000. He’s not though, as we learn when he hacks off his wings. (Think those might have come in handy later on, bud?) Michael is not played by John Travolta, as fans of garbage ‘90s comedies might fairly expect – instead, he’s played by Paul Bettany, who’s always reminded me of Neil Patrick Harris if he loved girls more than showtunes, or the guy from Coldplay if if he loved girls more than showtunes (ha ha!). Bettany is by far the best thing about the movie; he’s a convincingly unsentimental and competent action lead.
Legion also sports a fairly impressive supporting cast, all of them saddled with thankless roles that are thoroughly standard for the many genres that Legion encapsulates – horror, action, disaster movie, etc. There’s the spiritually adrift young waitress whose pregnancy may be the key to the whole future of humankind (played by Adrianne Palicki with an accent that disappears during her first scene and only occasionally returns.) There’s the meek young mechanic (Lucas Black) who loves her without getting any return on that investment, who unsurprisingly will be called on to prove himself before story’s end. That character’s name is Jeep, which sounds like something Sarah Palin would come up with. But no, Jeep’s dad is none other than Dennis Quaid, who’s way too good to have to be playing this many stereotypes at the same time – he’s a grouchy diner owner who’s developed a problem with booze after a ruined relationship and a troubled business. He’s lost his faith: can he regain it in time? Can I write movie tag lines?
There’s also the God-fearing dishwasher who recognizes the spiritual implications of what’s happened right away – and says he knew it was coming! If that wasn’t standard enough, this guy even has a hook where his left arm should be. Did you guess that he’s a black guy? Of course he is! Welcome to the Cliché Diner, hope you survive the visit! This character is played by Charles S. Dutton, another strong actor who I would have thought was beyond roles like this, but I guess since he’s done it a hundred times now, there’s no one better qualified to play them. Also, because a movie with this much going on can’t have just one black guy to kill off before all the other white characters (spoiler!), Tyrese Gibson is in the movie too. He plays a mysterious young brother who is involved in a custody battle and who keeps a gun on him at all times. In a stroke of inspiration, this character is from Vegas, not South Central. See, don’t think you can predict this movie.
Finally, there’s an uptight family of white people who are stranded at Quaid’s diner in the middle of nowhere because something went wrong with their Mercedes. These people are played by Jon Tenney (a well-known stage actor who I didn’t even realize was in this movie until I checked IMDB just now to write this article), Kate Walsh (that great-looking red-headed broad from Grey’s Anatomy who I would have thought was too big a TV star to have such a waste of a role in a genre movie), and some girl named Willa Holland as their teenage daughter. Don’t worry about that character; the screenwriters didn’t. (It’s been a while since I’ve seen a movie character written out of a movie off-screen.)
On the side of the bad guys, there’s Kevin Durand, a great character actor (from Lost, among other things), who is thoroughly wasted as the “evil” angel leading the extermination effort. Durand deserves better roles, although at least here all he has to deal with are giant wings and a fruity accent – at least they didn’t stick him in an unconvincing fat suit like that abominable Wolverine movie did. There’s also Doug Jones (Abe Sapien!) as an evil ice cream man, whose evil power is to make his jaw get really, really low, like Jim Carrey in The Mask. Look out! It’s Giantjaw! Don’t let him…. breathe on you, I guess. (There’s not much to be afraid of here, there’s not a single supernatural heaven-sent villain in this flick who can’t be easily mowed down with tons of bullets.) There’s also that potty-mouthed old lady from the trailers. She’s probably the most fun part of the movie, and definitely the first and last point where you feel like the main characters are in danger from anything other than their own clumsiness and stupidity.
Legion plays pretty much how you’d expect, right down to the letter. The best part is the way that the bad guys attack the diner where the good guys are holed up, and then after being shot at for a while, retreat so that the good guys have enough time to talk amongst themselves. I’m glad I don’t play drinking games, because if I had to drink every time one character solemnly recounts their backstory to another in over-dramatic exposition… well then I’d be Dennis Quaid’s character. (Maybe that’s what Quaid was doing on set to keep it fun!) My single favorite getting-to-know-you moment belongs to Tyrese and it begins like so: “When I was a shorty…”
I’m hitting Legion pretty hard with the sarcasm hammer, but I actually had a great time watching it. With a packed theater, it was not at all a waste of time. The crowd I was with hollered at all the expected moments and at a lot more of the unexpected ones. It’s always fun when an audience takes a movie in the spirit it deserves, and just goes with it. (Except for the aforementioned guy who thought the Lord was acting out of character.) Nobody expected this to be a serious drama with important ideas, nobody expected artistry or poetry, and nobody expected it to even be as good as the movies it awkwardly imitates (Terminator, Terminator 2, Tales From The Crypt: Demon Knight). When faced with such mediocrity, you can either whoop it up or get pissed off, and that second option is better left to JC. That’s James Cameron, not… you know.
Or maybe I’m just in a good mood because Taimak was in the theater with us at my screening. You know, Taimak = the man who played Leroy Green, a.k.a. Bruce Leroy, in Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon. If you’ve been paying occasional attention to anything I’ve said ever, you may have picked up on my overwhelming love for The Last Dragon. It’s no lost classic but it’s an energetic, entirely unpretentious movie with a good heart and a better soundtrack. When Legion got too formulaic and predictable to bear, I had a great time trying to imagine what thoughts were running through Taimak’s head as he watched the same movie. Was he, too, comparing it to the anything-goes bizarre excellence of The Last Dragon? Was he, too, imagining how he would play the Bettany role, or even imagining how the movie would be improved by the literal return of Bruce Leroy? (It sure couldn’t have hurt!) Was he, too, wondering how Bruce Leroy would fare in battle against the armies of Heaven?
A far, far better movie Legion could have been were it to have answered any of those questions. For me, anyway.
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