Slippery Winter Slope
The January doldrums are on us. It's that dead zone between the plethora of winter Oscar bait and the onset of summer popcorn-munching blockbusters. Have you noticed lately that, for Hollywood, summer starts in March now? You can thank 300 making about that many millions of dollars back in March 2006 for that.
However, between the here, now and then, it's predominately (but not entirely--I'm looking at you Shutter Island) a desolate wasteland of studio cast offs, cheap genre fare and formulaic romantic comedies in the run up to Valentine's Day.
If you're looking for quality this time of year, your best bet is to seek out the smaller Oscar pictures that slowly expand into smaller markets, such as Tulsa, and play at places like The Circle and AMC, or just catch up on the earlier films of 2009 on DVD/Blu-Ray that you might have missed that deserve a spin.
With that in mind, I had hoped Legion would at least be the kind of January cannon fodder I could enjoy on some kind of fun, tongue in cheek, "Bitch, don't drop the knife!" level. Sadly, what I got was a virulent case of "I Saw Almost Everything That Was Even Remotely Cool about This Movie in the Trailer."
I'm not sure what straw broke the camel's back, but in Legion, God has decided he's had enough of humanity.
Not wanting to repeat himself, instead of a flood, he orders his Angels to descend on Earth and possess human souls (I'm still not sure how this is an efficient way to wipe everyone out, but the possessed grow shark teeth and sound like Gene Simmons, so I guess that's cool).
The Archangel Michael (Paul Bettany) decides God is just feeling a little hotheaded and refuses to go along with the plan, instead descending to Los Angeles, hacking off his wings and arming himself to the teeth. The end is beginning, so Michael procures a police car and high-tails it out of town.
Meanwhile, in a decrepit diner out in the desert, we meet our ensemble cast. Bob Hanson (Dennis Quaid) runs the diner with his son Jeep (Lucas Black) and his trusty, hook-handed cook Percy (Charles S. Dutton). Jeep has a case of unrequited love for Charlie (Adrianne Palicki), a pregnant, cigarette puffing waitress whose unborn baby is going to turn out to be way more important than anyone realizes.
Additional fresh meat includes a stranded family, The Andersons, whose car's fate rests in Jeep's hands--who spent all day concluding they need a better mechanic--and Kyle (Tyrese Gibson) a mysterious traveler who winds up getting more than he bargained for when he decided to stop for some gas.
When swarms of insects hem them in and a sweet little old lady starts crawling on the ceiling, they realize something weird is happening. Fortunately, the Archangel Michael shows up and organizes their defense against the hordes of God's wrath.
It's all quite obtuse, unoriginal, poorly written, contradictory, derivative and ridiculous. Directed by Scott Stewart from a script by himself and Peter Schink, Legion is an under baked, yet typical, siege movie in the vein of John Carpenter's The Thing, who himself was fond of making this type of homage to Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo. You know the template.
A cross section of archetypal characters trapped in a confined space, united by the common cause of survival against overwhelming odds. Unfortunately, Legion only dreams of being a fraction as well made and entertaining as either of those two films.
The characters do things that make no sense just to move the narrative along--when the script isn't busy contradicting itself for them--and are paper thin.
Things like Percy's hook hand or Charlie's negligence in smoking while pregnant are supposed to stand in for character development. It's not like there's a story behind any of them. They are pawns that have been roughly hewn then moved into place, so the filmmakers can have some cool chaos happen to them while knocking them off, one by one.
The film's set pieces are largely in the trailer, and they are not much more expansive then what you've already seen. It's not like that matters much since you really don't care about any of the characters. Sure, some of the effects looks cool for a small budget flick with a B-List cast, but this could have just as easily been some ersatz SyFy Channel original movie with slightly bumped up visuals. In fact, I've seen crappy SyFy Channel flicks that were more fun than this.
Dennis Quaid, as Bob Hanson, spends most of the film looking like he came off a weeklong bathtub gin bender, and Lucas Black, as his son Jeep, is bereft of any discernable charisma. Adrianne Palicki's character, Charlie, is nearly detestable and Palicki's portrayal is on the same level of bland as Black's. Tyrese was passable as Kyle. He isn't given much to work with (to be fair, none of them are) but contrasted against the void of onscreen gravitas exhibited by many of his co-stars, Tyrese at least registered.
The only real acting bright spots were Charles S. Dutton as Percy and Paul Bettany as the Archangel Michael. Bettany is rather good, somehow striking a balance in between serious and light hearted that speaks more to his ability than the writing of his character. Somebody needs to make a Midnight Oil biopic and cast him as Peter Garrett. Dutton gets by on just being Dutton, and that's good enough for me.
I could pick over all the nonsensical details of Legion, but there's no point.
It's not like I had a lot of hope for it, but I like it when my expectations are defied. I like it when little horror movies work and when they are smartly written, inventive (even if it's just turning tropes on their ear) and fun. Legion is none of those things.
Harrison Ford doesn't care anymore. That's actually been pretty apparent for more than a decade. I'll be charitable and say Air Force One was his last likeable movie--unless you're Mother Teresa and count the last Indiana Jones flick. Even there, though, you could see the beginnings of the one-note scowl and barking line delivery he now uses all the time.
Somehow, with Extraordinary Measures, Ford has figured out a way to stand out with a performance that makes perfectly clear that he is completely bored with his chosen profession. I've heard people describe an actor as "sleepwalking" through a role before, but this is the first time I've actually seen it done.
Extraordinary Measures tells the "(un)inspired by true events" story of John Crowley (Brendan Fraser), a family man with three children, two of who have Pompe Syndrome, which is a genetic disorder with no cure.
Crowley works for a big pharmaceutical conglomerate and is on the up and up, but he decides to risk everything when he hears about the groundbreaking theoretical work being done on Pompe by a brilliant scientist, Dr. Robert Stonehill (Harrison Ford).
Crowley tracks him down and convinces Stonehill he can raise the vast sums needed to get the underfunded doc's experimental treatment into production, but instead they wind up getting venture capitalists to fund a start-up biotech company with the facilities to do the research on their own.
They land their funding but, of course, the road from spinning centrifuges to human trials of a new therapy is fraught with complications. And those complications ensue, riveting the audience with edge-of-your-seat-suspense, leading up to a blindsiding shocker of a climax that left me with my jaw dropped and my mind thoroughly blown.
Kind of like Legion, there's nothing much about Extraordinary Measures that distinguishes itself from a TV movie of the week-- though instead of the SyFy Channel this would be more at home on Lifetime. Adapted by Robert Nelson Jacobs (from the novel The Cure by Geeta Anand) and directed by Tom Vaughn (whose resume is unsurprisingly television heavy), Extraordinary Measures is a study in narrative lethargy.
Plotted in a point A to B to C fashion that assures neither surprises, confusion or anything resembling a pulse, the film plods along from one uninspired scene to the next, content merely to relate events, as opposed to infusing them with any sense of personality or style. It near lulled me to sleep. In my defense, though, I had just eaten.
I know this is supposed to be an inspiring film, and I have enough of a heart to care about the plight of Crowley and his children (or anyone who has a deadly disease), but the film didn't really do much to elicit that sympathy. The all-surface nature of the characters coupled with the fact that I knew how the thing would end before I ever walked into the theater quickly began to try my patience, instead of compel me to care.
As Crowley, Brendan Fraser is in "concerned" mode, kind of generically hitting all the right notes but staying in his comfort zone. Not much of his questionable charm is really on display here, though in comparison to Extraordinary Measures, I suddenly found myself liking The Mummy films more.
Keri Russell as his wife, Aileen, was actually not bad, but if I had to pick a standout performance here it would be Jared Harris as Dr. Kent Webber, an executive whose adherence to regulations causes problems for Crowley and Stonehill. Harris is always interesting to watch, though even he seems to struggle to breathe life into this thing.
I don't know if Ford was doing some kind of genius take on the disconnected brilliant scientist type, or if he was just totally baked on Humboldt bud. I'm leaning to the latter. He seems to have two sides to his delivery now--mumbling confusion and pissed off yelling. If anything, his mumbling confusion seemed more acute here, while his pissed off yelling was more half-hearted. I sometimes wondered if he even knew the camera was rolling. Retire, please.
Extraordinary Measures is anything but extraordinary. In fact, I'm getting sleepy just thinking about it.
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