RIORI Redux: Francis Lawrence’s “I Am Legend” Revisited


MV5BMTU4NzMyNDk1OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTEwMzU1MQ@@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_


The Players…

Will Smith, with Alice Braga, Dash Mihok, Charlie Tahan and…Abbey.


The Story…

When a contagion spreads across the planet and turns the human race into bloodthirsty mutants, civilization’s last hope for survival lies with scientist Robert Neville, the last normal man on Earth.


The Rant (2013)

Richard Matheson’s writing has never been regarded as “subtle.” In fact, his work has been compared to the literary equivalent of being bashed in the head with a sledgehammer, and this an alleged complement. Then again, there’s nothing really subtle about the concept of being ridden down by an unholy fleet of blood-sucking vampires out to chew your ass, which happens to be attached to the only human left on the planet. Pressure.

For those not in the know, Matheson was a quietly prolific writer of suspense and science fiction; some of his work was translated to many original episodes of the seminal TV series The Twilight Zone. For those in the know, he penned the classics “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet,” “The Invaders” and “Third From The Sun” (oh yeah…that guy). Steven Speilberg’s first feature, Duel, was based on the short story of the same name. Several of his novels were adapted for Hollywood also, like Hell House, What Dreams May Come (which won an Oscar), A Stir Of Echoes and, yes, I Am Legend.

That particular novel has been made into a movie four times, including this version as well as the classic adaptations starring the inimitable Vincent Price and that damned dirty ape-hater Charlton Heston. So in long, Matheson’s fantastical work has proven to be quite versatile and malleable for the silver screen, stylized to fit the tastes and times. In short, he’s Stephen King’s favorite author and primary influence. Both say something about earning an audience.

That being said, it begs the question: “Four times?!?” What, they didn’t get it right the first three?

In this our 21st Century, we moviegoers have been bombarded with remakes of classic (and not so classic) movies. Here’s a story: years ago, 2004 into ’05, when I was a practicing alcoholic (I got real good at it too) and had a lot of down time to indulge in whiskey and cinema, I noticed a lot of commercials for new movies that I knew to be remakes. Since I had the time, I decided to keep track of how many films came out that year that were either remakes, reboots or sequels (or even prequels).

I counted 40. I sh*t you not. I double-checked this via the IMDb.

Forty. That’s a lot of laziness on behalf of Hollywood. And a mean way to fleece money off people. I guess the bigwigs figured the majority of moviegoers were either too lazy or too ignorant and wouldn’t bat an eyelash for a retread of a pre-existing film. Americans in general already have miniscule attention spans already; nostalgia is breakfast. Maybe the movie moguls were right. It might explain why I Am Legend is the fourth iteration of this movie whose origins span 40 years into the past. That’s pre-Internet, so what’d you expect?

Wait, wait. I’m not saying all remakes are bad. Some are quite good, like Hitchcock’s second go-round with The Man Who Knew Too Much, John Sturges’ classic western The Magnificent Seven, or even Mark Waters’ much-needed update of Freaky Friday. So before we pass (anymore) judgment, let’s pick apart the latest version of a classic man-versus-vampires epic and see on which side of fence it falls.

This film received some inordinate bits of flack by critics and audiences alike. Mostly directed at Smith. Like I noted in my After Earth dissection, I figure Smith is tiring of the maverick, comical roles he’s made his money on. Audiences seem like they’re not ready for a serious, dour individual like Robert. Like all the characters he’s portrayed most of his career, people would prefer to have Agent Jay or even the Fresh Prince up there on the big screen. But like with Adam Sandler’s constant re-hashing the buffoon roles, occasionally you gotta pull a Punch Drunk Love.

I Am Legend is not your conventional vampire movie. For one, the term “vampire” isn’t mentioned once. The Dark Seekers are not pseudo-romantic, quasi-sexual beings of immortal emulation. They’re f*cking freaks. An abomination to God and Nature. A plague, and the film depicts that as so; swarming rabid things crammed full of viruses. Redolent stinking hordes of shrieking rats preying on anything that bleeds. Have I made my point yet? Right. The Dark Seekers are very rather chilling and quite effective at establishing and maintaining Neville’s solitary nightmare atmosphere.

And poor Bob is stranded alone on Earth with the lot of them. In fact, “stranded” may be the key term that describes the feel of the film. For over an hour into the film, Smith is the only actor, not counting Abbey of course. We walk by his side, we only sees things that he sees, we truly live it all vicariously through Robert Neville and only him. We, as an audience, are stranded with him. Neville’s pathos is so consuming that as the movie progresses, you start to wonder if kind of relishes his solitude; wear it like a badge of pride or as sackcloth and ashes? He was directly responsible for the plague after all. Guilt can be a powerful weapon. So much so that it becomes ever obvious that Neville may be losing his mind. Wouldn’t you?

It’s good that Legend is quickly engaging. Not as in “fast pace.” The movies gets your attention very swiftly, and fails to falter. It has an urgent agendum, and quietly sweeps you up. This happens despite for the first half hour, all we really see is Neville driving through deserted streets of a ruined Manhattan, scrounging for food and sundries (yes, I used the word sundries) and tooling around in his lab. Smith is adopting a stoic, silent type of leading man, letting his actions tell the story. At this he does a fine job. A sort of relatable everyman in a dire circumstance. Him wandering the landscape gently affixes his sense of solitude to the viewer. By the way, how do filmmakers clear the streets like that? I mean, some of it is CGI, but the rest?

Speaking of CGI, I had a real issue (but not a big one) with the digitally rendered…well, everything in Legend. The effects were rather weak. You could almost smell the green screen wafting off the projector. What would be assumed to enhance the ferocity of the Dark Seekers only made them look rubbery and cartoon-like (still, rubbery scary cartoons). I admit I was watching a DVD on an HD television, but I’ve seen lower tech movies and the patchiness didn’t seep through. What the vamps lacked in looks, however, was made up for with screeches. So bravo Dolby.

The only other gripe I had was the film’s resolution. It had sort of a “duh” feeling to it. Considering what kind of man Robert Neville is, one would think he’d come to the proper conclusion light years ago. This would make the film really short though, and not worth the ten bucks admission. So we’ll ignore that as best we can for now.

Legend is very stark film, not unlike Matheson’s fiction. There is very little subtlety involved in the story. Bob’s alone, struggling to retain a sense of normalcy and avoiding the baddies. Not much else to the plot. You don’t really wonder if he’ll get out of this hell, nor do you invest much interest in that. It’s just watching him running errands basically. This was, in fact, the general feel of the novel some critics have said.

There are still very little amenities here. For instance, what attempts as humor here, doesn’t. It’s difficult to tell if it’s intentional or not. Smith has been understood as a comical presence in Hollywood, after all. And as for his acting, it’s some of the best he’s done in years. He’s essentially carrying the movie more or less by himself. He better be good. Again, and I hate to keep hammering on this, Neville’s sense of isolation really fills up the white space here.

Speaking of filling up space, there is next to no soundtrack. Silence—the absence of man-made noises like cars and general hustle and bustle—again creates the feeling of a desolate planet. How could you feel alone with smartphones bleeping everywhere? Like I said, stark.

Overall Legend was a pretty good little slice of cinema. I say little because it was released in the middle of December. Oscar time, not blockbuster time. And since it recouped only (yes, only) $100,000,000 at the box office, you could say it was a loss leader for Smith. Seeing that the original Men In Black movie raked in over $500,000,000, Will might have a long-ass time to go to shed some skin.

I liked Legend. I wouldn’t want to watch it again. For all its stylistic efforts, it lacked that je en sais quai I get from time to time, even from the bad sh*t I am tricked into watching. As I said it wasn’t typical Will Smith fare. Still, it had some merit as far as remakes go. It kept closer to the original source material, but even the tightest scenarists should know that following the book line for line leaves little room for interpretation. All that gooey solitude of the movie that I keep harping on was engrossing, but it did get tedious after a time. Maybe too much alone time with Will Smith’ll do that to you. Then again, the same can be said of Mathson’s stories.


Rant Redux (2019)…

I Am Legend was cut back in the “remake era” of moviedom, whatever that’s supposed to mean. According to some pop culture pundits we’re presently in the “reboot era.” What’s the diff and the point? In the original intro above I groused about the quadrillion remakes of good and not-so-good movies from yesteryear (EG: the 2000s), claiming—perhaps rightly so—Hollywood had gotten lazy, ran out of original ideas or banked on the notion of how Millennial sense of history is so palsied. Might have the hattrick there. In the end run audiences got bored with all the “new boss same as the old boss” folderol and the ticket taker showed exactly that. Despite Legend being one of the better remakes, the cracks were starting to show even then.

Now we have studios rebooting every franchise they can ferret out of the pre-WiFi vault. Probably also hedging their bets on Millennial knowledge of history, with all the world info in their pockets yet can’t work an ancient rotary dial phone. That’s not an insult; they could ask Alexa. You hear what I’m screaming? Right. I’d like to think that Gen X was the last generation that appreciates nostalgia. One doesn’t need nostalgia now; we have Facebook et al. Not a swipe, it’s true. That and most Millennials are so very forward-thinking, not ones to dwell on things left undone. There’s work to be done, achievements to reach, goals to scratch off the great To Do List of life. Who has time for longing after that year old memory? We have new ones to make!

Okay. Sorry. That’s as schmaltzy as I’m ever gonna get. Here.

So what does all that mean with this rebooting trend? Hollywood is trolling the Millennials. There were a lot of cool-ass movies series back in the ancient 80s and 90s (and 00s. Sigh). Let’s dress them up in some flash togs and market them to the forward-thinking brats and introduce the (market) value of nostalgia for stuff they never knew. Or wanted to. Or needed to. Do we really need another Bill & Ted sequel?

Sure. Rebooting isn’t necessarily a bad thing nor a cash cow. Picking up where we last left off is common in other media. Like when a rock group decides to reunite and tour. Or some spin-off of a popular TV series (EG: Cheers begat Fraiser, the many Star Trek series and the prequel Young Sheldon from Big Bang. Okay, two outta three ain’t bad). Or when some writer brings back a popular character for a new novel, like Jack Ryan, Lestat or every-bloody character from Kurt Vonnegut’s body of work. Jump-starting that rusted engine now and again allows the next generation of talent to see if their dog will hunt as Big Cinema crosses its arthritic fingers.

Rebooting, remaking, whatever. Hollywood is a business, commerce, trafficking in entertainment. At its core, like all bottom lines, Hollywood wants to make money, not art. If a film becomes “art” it does so by no means attached to the studios’ mission statements. A fine example is the classic Casablanca. No one intended it to be a classic, endlessly quotable, ideal ensemble piece during its production. No. Michael Curtiz was interested Howard Koch and friends’ concept of a film version of the play Everybody Comes To Rick’s. Only after the word-of-mouth, quotable quotes and ensuing awards, boom: classic. The film was made under the old studio system, so free press and agency were no-gos, not to mention the scalding absence of social media. Meaning: nope, Curtiz and company just had a job to, and the film itself was riddled with production problems and budgetary concerns despite being the nice, neat romantic triangle movie under the now standard 100 minutes long.

BTW: Trivia! Casablanca is the most quoted movie in Hollywood history. So here’s looking at you.

All that being said, remakes and its red-headed stepchild reboots can be a good thing. It all depends on the context and construct. Those two factors carry a lot of weight, especially when the movie in question is based on pre-exisiting media, like Legend was. Like with sequels, remakes and reboots have to demand: “Well, is there more of the story to tell? What can be added? What can be excised? Will it make money? Could you get off Instagram for one darn minute, Mr Producer?”

Re-whatever is a good thing if they can enhance a movie’s legacy. It’s hard to determine that if the continuous iterations fumble with the atmosphere of the originals against the story’s original potency, which invites future interpretations. Also what counts as a “re?” Consider all the adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. How many times has Romeo And Juliet been spun? We have from the definitive Zeffirelli version to the hip, 90s take with Leo DiCaprio and Claire Daines in their respective, titular roles. How about master Japanese director Akira Kurosawa plundering the Bard’s catalogue with samurai infused films like Throne Of Blood and Ran? Or even George Lucas plundering Kurosawa’s oeuvre gaffing-taping the plot of 1958’s The Hidden Fortress onto Star Wars: A New Hope? Christ, even the original Die Hard was ripped from a pedestrian novel.

Did all this creative theft prove right? Yes, if any of the above movies seem salient. Like way above, Legend was made into a movie four times over. I guess the story lent to fresher interpretations, and most of them were entertaining and made money. Unfortunately that’s the bitter bottom line, but occasionally those dollars made meant something. I did not intend for this revision to become a relatively even-handed screed about the pros and cons of re-anything, but the nature of Legend‘s being done again again lent some credence. I’d like to think so.

Oh, and as a coda: It was good to see Smith stretching himself by performing a one-man show, a la Tom Hanks in Castaway. That was the best part about the movie. If I Am Legend gets another do-over (I think it will), leave in all that solitude business. It kinda reminds me of myself carrying on this way to precious no one.

Hello? Wait, was it something I said? Come back, Shane!

(That last line was totally lost on the Millennials, despite its riffs in endless memes.)


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Sustained: rent it. We all need an awkwardly moody vampire/character study now and again.


Epilogue…

Well, that’s it, friends. Sanded off the rough edges of my early entries. Feels good to know after revisiting them I didn’t come across as a vomiting demon most of the time. Mostly. I suppose more barf may come up in future installments. Thanks to the evil social media I’ve learned my bile has become a stock-in-trade. I guess thanks are in order. You’re welcome.

So now it’s off to fertile fields. New territory. Gerard Butler to put in place. Business as usual. Hope you stay tuned. Excelsior!


Next Installment…

My man Don Cheadle is ex-con-turned-DJ Ralph “Petey” Green demanding his audience to Talk To Me so he may face the consequences.


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 78: Francis Lawrence’s “Constantine” (2005)



The Players

Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz, Shia LeBeouf, Djimon Hounsou, Tilda Swinton and Peter Stormare, with Max Baker, Pruitt Taylor Vince and Gavin Rossdale (yeah, that guy from Bush).


The Story…

In a world ruled largely by what is and what’s not, an eccentric, troubled private detective with a taste for the supernatural finds himself on his latest paranormal-tinged case: an investigation of a murdered suicide victim.

Say what now?


The Rant…

I’m a lapsed Christian. Been so for quite some time, at least since dinner.

It’s not like if I fell out of love with the church (but she’s never returned my calls, so there), just away. I was raised Episcopalian, which is the American version of Anglicism, the church of England. Very similar practices, but with less heavy accents. Either way this branch of Protestantism is pretty straightforward: study and try to follow the teachings of Jesus, apply them towards peace and understanding to friends and enemies alike and attend mass every Sunday to compare hats. It’s a social affair as much it is a spiritual one. Enlightenment and handshakes all around. Amen.

As nice a sentiment as that is, over time I tired of church, but not tired of the above things. Definitely not the hats; coonskin goes a long way. Don’t misunderstand me here; nowadays I’m pretty much an atheist. It’s not the whole, “If there is a God then how come there is so much suffering yadda yadda yadda you’ve heard it…” Shut it. Bad sh*t happens because people, not some omnipotent deity make it rain on other people. This a simple construct as well as popular one for the ago non- or no-longer believer. It sure is trite. Call that mindset your typical “gateway drug” into questioning faith. It’s the Busch Light version of Martin Luther and his hammer. Still, that precept in all its iterations is a good question as to why some folks leave faith behind. Or pull a 180. Why is the world so topsy-turvy when most of us seek spiritual enlightenment? The whole peace, love and understanding matters of unity. What’s so funny about that?

*wink*

Even me being a lapsed Christian, to this day (and call it judgmental; JC would waggle a finger at me for this one) I’m a pretty good armchair/inflatable pulpit kinda rainmaker when it may why push comes to shove between faith up against the often ugly reality about living on Earth. The other plane can wait for now.

Although I’m not a believer in God, I am quite the fan of his son. Whenever I’ve read the Bible, the Four Gospels always appealed to me. Jesus’ best buds Matthew, Mark, Luke and John waxing poetic about their times hanging with the big man. Taken as a whole, the Gospels play out like a G-rated Tarantino flick. In so saying, John says, “I remember the time Jesus and me did…” Then Matt says, “Waitaminnit, that’s not how I remember it.” Then Luke raises his hand, “Uh, guys…?” And Thomas grouses, “You guys are full of sh*t.”

JC’s times with his apostle wingmen are a big road trip, with essential Christian lessons learned along the way. And with every good road trip you gotta have the guy that takes the wheel. In this light—as one of several—the New Testament is like a Hallmark card given at the right time. The Old Testament may be a series of cautionary traffic cones, but the next chapter is the open road, full of possibilities. I like that with Jesus as the wheelman. A guiding force for good without the messianic complex, so to speak. This I can get behind, with or without proper worship.

Then there’s that 180. The collective who takes the Bible’s stories beyond way too serious. I think it was Voltaire that said, “One does not read the Bible for its text.” Namely, read between the lines you dweebs. You know the crap I cited above about hats? Yeah. I figured out that there are two types of Christians. On one hand we have the believers that congregate to engage in both worship and social congress, trying to understand one another’s differences and find some common ground. On the other we have folks who’ve gone through the Book of Revelation with a highlighter. Yeah, I think I’d rather hang around the coffee urns post-sermon. We got enough issues already to waste time planning for Armageddon, and again you don’t need church to try and reconcile with all that sh*t. War, disease, fake news, GMOs, being actually concerned about Miley Cyrus’ career path. We all got our spiritual bags full of cracked eggs.

All that’s out there, and was another nail in the cross—again, so to speak—of me quitting the church. The whole “if there is a loving God” schpiel eventually found me as a cop-out. All that bad sh*t above happens in this world is caused by people, not crafted from some prankster on High. I figured if that one attends church to learn the straight and narrow, that’s a waste of time. You learn that path by wandering through the world, taking in the sights, sizing up what you see and hear. If you found the right path then you’d find your way to a house of worship. If you need to understand how to get along with people and two hours every Sunday fits the bill, you are a far more enlightened person than me or anyone that reads this blog.

Yeah, so the whole “making excuses” factor soured me. That and Thomas’ potty mouth. I didn’t believe I had to attend church to understand the basal concept of good versus evil, or how to try and get along with different people, or not burn anyone at a stake. Attending church boiled down to the whole hat thing again. I read the Bible on my own, most of which I dug. Understood JC was a cool guy, a philosopher and an agitator to the rather unbalanced status quo of the Roman Empire. No one needs to attend church to get all that. At the end of the day, I figured out church as that hat thing. Old hat.

One final significance that turned me off to church: the routine. Scolding sin and looking for the highest tree to lasso. When I was a wee one sitting in the pew (quit giggling), trying to soak up so much ballyhoo I could’ve sworn I was getting the stinkeye from the prominent gatekeepers attendant by the altar, not to mention the prelate himself at the lectern delivering tales of hellfire and brimstone to a quivering congregation. Needless to say, I didn’t feel right welcome. Not JC territory for me, even at the age of nine.

So what does all my mucky muck have to do with lapse in faith? Well, it’s not a lapse in faith per se. Despite all the nastiness on the planet and my cynical worldview, I still have faith in humanity. There’s still compassion out there, practiced by decent, caring people, Christian or no. Be it St Jude’s Hospital, Habitat For Humanity, Greenpeace or Black Lives Matter, caring folks with the need to communicate a message of trust and understanding to everyone is out there. Kinda like what our wheelman might do.

No. I lost faith in the church, an entity that was once open but is now insular, in bed with the state and casting out when they should be opening up. Not all churches are like that, but I’ve driven by many monolithic edifices dedicated to worship (most with Wi-Fi) and couldn’t help but wonder where all that money came from to build those fortresses on such prime real estate and where it could’ve been spent otherwise? Tax free?

Slow down there. Before I crawl any further up thine own arse about this whole struggle with belief, I’ll sort of wrap up with the following warm fuzzy. And it has nothing to do with my keeping Super Mario Bros on my NES on indefinite pause for the duration of one Sunday’s eucharist cuz I finally made it to world 8. That kind of sounds like religious fervor. Not a prayer circle or nothing, but what the hell, I was 12.

It’s about retirement, both literal and spiritual. Too much of everything, yet still committing self to spirit. Possibly a metaphor for bailing on the need for turtleneck sweaters between 9 and 11 in the morning on any given Sunday. We’ll even let go of the suspect prime real estate for now.

Recall overly stern minister I rambled about? After he retired I learned on the sly that there was a sort of witch hunt upon his flock. I knew I felt uncomfortable during service, and what was told spoke millions as well as calmed me. I was f*cking 9, yet in the swim of the hat checking that was floating around the congregation.

Turned out the senior members of the congregation didn’t want kids in worship; too much of a potential ruckus. Ban ’em, down to Seventh Level with ya little booger-eaters. Even as a kid I knew that was dopey. How are you gonna replenish the crop without fresh seeds? Not a direct quote there, but really? Segregation at church? Isn’t that a part of both what the Apostles and the Founding Fathers fought against (and if you can’t trust GW and JC then who can you)? So the proverbial seed of doubt was sown, and I was merely nine. Church ain’t the place to be. The physical building at any rate.

Fortunately the edict was short lived. As a kid—ignoring the witch hunt—I kinda found church comfy, albeit boring. We all went through the motions, sure, hearing about sin and redemption and WWJD? No joke here, but hanging close with all the parishioners felt good, like family Thanksgiving. It was probably herd mentality all the way, but I received some succor from the rhetoric. For a time. What I learned about the minister and his elite guard, church wasn’t the nest it was supposed to be. It was a crucible.

*insert dramatic tympani bellows here*

The game changer was the old codger’s replacement. He was a soft-spoken man, Southerner with a lilting accent and a bit of a hangdog. He wasn’t the aggressive peddler in sin and strife like his precursor, all self-righteous with St Peter on speed dial. No. The new guy was gentle, reserved and gave the finest sermons I ever heard. I was still a kid and at that time an acolyte who lit the candles and fidgeting before the altar during service (what with that massive reminding crucifix hanging over my head. Another good reason to dodge church: the possibility of being smitten), but had a keen enough ear toward a good story when I heard it. Brimstone or thankfully no.

Our Southern gentleman preacher’s sermons were the kind of thing I could get around, loaded with questioning and light on the sinning. Sure, he’d always start his schpiel with some Biblical references, but we were in church so it felt superfluous. Guess he was filling some sort of Episcopalian counting coup quota. But the bulk of his sermons were steeped in social commentary. A lot of it political, which flew in the face of proper sermonizing. Separation of blah and blah, right? Stuff like our leaders’ civil intentions towards their constituency, and were they walking along the path of the Savior. Or educators’ rolls teaching faith without “teaching faith.” Or the one sermon that really stuck with me (despite me being whelp cowing under the cross, literally and figuratively) was about divorce as sin. Was it? That covenant between man and woman under the watchful eye of God, broken? Don’t ask why some snot-nosed young snot like me paid attention, but that might’ve been our genteel preacher presented his sermon like some closing argument in trial court. He weighed the evidence, tempered it with just enough emotion to make it go down smooth and delivered his answer:

“Is divorce bad? Yes. Is it a sin? No.”

This frankness was a lot more assuring than me bound for the lake of fire for playing doctor with that cute girl down the lane. Kidding. I didn’t live on a lane. It was a drive.

It’s that kind of story, that kind of meditation on life, love and leaving that was mostly absent in my family’s church. I know now that I don’t need to attend mass to get my fill of Jesus’ many road trips, nor do I need mismatched worship against hidden secular agendum. I don’t need the teachings of the Bible as an excuse for humans’ deplorable behavior. And I don’t need some omnipresent overlord with His magnifying glass to ensure we all keep in line. That’s all bullsh*t. We’re in charge of our own destinies without churches, hopefully going forward with decency and common sense. That’s me.

To conclude, and in respect to this week’s wad of dough, there was that 180 I spoke of. I don’t really need to expound on those “true believers” motives, or motivations for that matter. I can’t exactly pin it down, but I’m sure I heard it somewhere, maybe in high school history class: Our puritanical Puritans who we asked to leave England and set up shop here had a very dire version of practicing their baleful version of Christianity. Their sermons consisted of hellfire and brimstone, to be sure. But to have to listen to passages of how much God hates you, you willful sinner. How you are a mere insect hanging by a thread over the Inferno, and the Man Upstairs cannot wait to cut the cord and only eternal prayer may—may—save your eternal soul, well that kind of mindset JC might argue against.

Good faith and good PR. Might be a better weapon against Satan and his mighty, tempestuous hordes of demons at his beck and call. Y’know, personal faith to thwart evil. Integrity over temptation. Righteousness over sloth. Belief against the inevitable.

Prayer against…


The trouble with knowing you’re wrong is that you’re often right.

John Constantine (Reeves) is damned. Damned if he does and damned if he does. He’s a detective. A very unique detective. He doesn’t specialize in theft, infidelity or even murder. No, not outright. He specializes in weird crimes that no one else can handle. Mostly because they involve the supernatural, the occult and slapping demons in the puss.

You see, John has the ability (maybe curse) to see what the normal world can’t. Or won’t. Demons, angels and everything in between are naked to him, as are the crimes on this plane they commit. He takes on the odd cases involving exorcism, magic, ley lines out of whack and nasty imps from the underworld hell-bent of corrupting mortal beings. It can get messy.

And not just in the ectoplasmic sense. Detective Rachel Dodson (Weisz) seeks out John’s unique talents.  Turns out her sister Isabel (also Weisz) after being committed to an asylum takes a swan dive into the facility’s pool. From ten floors up. Rachel refuses to believe this was a suicide, them both being devout Catholics. Isabel would never take her own life, no matter of disturbed she may have been.

Rachel suspects some otherworldly force drove Isabel to jumping. At first, John is skeptical. Sound like a traditional suicide to him. But over the week since, and weird demonic crimes popping up at an inexplicable rate, there might be something…unnatural attached to Isabel’s death.

Maybe supernatural might be a better term.

So John lights up and also lights up…


We never talked about the occult or the paranormal, beyond the devil’s antics and the seven deadly sins in church. Which is kinda odd. There are plenty of opportunities to teach the mortal plane about storm and strife with the addition of demonic activity to drive the point home.

Sure, there are significant tales from the chapters of the Good Book that highlight spectral incursions. The temptation of Christ courtesy of a jealous Satan. The temping snake in Eden. Even the donkey Uber telling Joe and Mary the way to Bethlehem. Lots of weird sh*t in the Bible as head-scratchers, courtesy of the paranormal.

Not much was delved into when I was a church-goer. Too bad, for if this element was examined further I might be still attendant. Why? Consider the nightly news. A diluted version of sin and strife to be sure, but also as entertainment. JC feeding Satan his hydra-like c*ck of his own ass? What leaves more of an impression? Probably more than the potential financial turnouts on NBR. Go invest elsewhere.

This week, I invested in Francis Lawrence’s Constantine for a fix of demonic incursion and intrigue. That and a little police procedural thrown in. I’ll admit, I was a tad bamboozled. Based on my viewing of Lawrence’s take on I Am Legend, I expected a weird amalgam of sci-fi, Lovrecraftian sensibilities and human drama.

Instead, and within 12 minutes there was a stink of cheeze.

At the outset, Constantine felt deliberately comic-bookyI don’t care if this film was lifted from DC’s mature Vertigo imprint, where those titles aim beyond the PG-13 crowd. Any hack can warp a serious comic into drivel if they don’t understand the nature of the medium. Fortunately, a great many filmmakers did get it (eg: Watchman, From Hell, Scott Pilgrim vs The World, etc), and were fearless in their execution.

Constantine has the stale scent of holding back met with fumbling fingers. Like clumsily unhooking a bra after prom.

Now to be fair, Constantine was cut during the fallow days when comic book movies were just beginning to come into vogue and most directors didn’t know what they’d gotten their hands on. Sure, some guys like Bryan Singer got it with his take on the X-Men and some guys like Bryan Singer didn’t with his take on Superman Returns. We’re talking uneven stories at best back then (if not now, come to think of it). There wasn’t a proper template established yet. From what I’ve observed most early comic book movies couldn’t—or outright wouldn’t—stray far from the “comic book” aspect of the movies’ source. The bombast, the action, the bing boom splat. The subtlety of Adam West.

I’m not claiming that director Lawrence wrote it in, but there was an air of Constantine playing it safe by delivering the straight line. What’s worse the film appears to be trying real hard to rise above the underpinnings that Batman And Robin staked down almost a decade prior. Barring any neon upchuck, Constantine overplays the action and undermines a lot of the human drama that makes comic book movies tick (as well as actual comic books). The first Spider Man flick illustrates this tenet. This lack (or at least, rather weak feeling) of organic drama and character development makes the movie feel strained,  compensating with lots and lots of F/X and speed while muddling the razor thin plot. It’s forced atmosphere of urgency. Simply put, Constantine is the first boring exciting movie about demons I’ve ever seen. Sure, I don’t have much of a reference point, but ride with me already.

And the ride through Constantine was a bumpy one. A lot of stalled pacing, like when a car slips out of gear and you have to turn the engine over again (my ride’s stick; best analogy I could think of). Like I said, forced urgency. Funny considering the balance of power between angels and demons existing on our plane with their tips and tricks. Figured those stakes would ramp up something. I said the film was trying too hard to be suspenseful and mysterious, but on the flipside I also felt director Lawrence was holding back. He was shackled to the preconceived notions of what—at the time—a comic book movie should be. Lawrence is a stylish director, but his work has a fair amount of substance only accented with style. I repeat, his take on the umpteenth iteration of I Am Legend was chockful of style balanced well with human drama substance. Seeing that film was a dire character study with only Will Smith and a loyal German shepherd as the primary cast for most of the movie, the guy knows the balance of the human factor against the, well, inhuman factor. Looks like with Constantine the human part got gobbled up by the inhuman splash and dash. But again, Legend was released after Constantine, so it stands to reason that the man might’ve learned a thing or three after this pastiche.

In retrospect, that’s kind of a shame. Again I profess that comic book trappings of the time undid a lot of this movie. Lawrence is too sharp a director to let things get out of hand, but again that comic book prejudice. Blame may be placed at the feet of test audience (I’ll have something to say about that Neilsen nightmare some other time), who may have wanted Exorcist lite, but with more boomy things. And that might be where Lawrence met some middle ground between “Slow down there” and “Get on with it.” I appreciated the restrained use of the slam-bang CGI action. Constantine’s descents into the underworld were swift and sharp. Plot points and not just some phantasmagoria to tantalize us with wanton pixels. I liked that aspect; it felt like evidence of how the action would play out in I Am Legend. Sparse and essential to captivate and maintain interest in the story. Worked for me.

Some more strained positivity: truth be told, okay. It takes a while; slow burn. Maybe too slow, but the intrigue eventually rises. Even if only halfway through the second act. I didn’t get where the flick was going. It felt aimless, lacked oomph. Where the hell are we going with this (so to speak)? Eventually got an inkling that Constantine was trying to be an action movie, not really. Forgetting comic book bias for a minute, the movie was in actuality a murder mystery, gussied up with Peter Stormare as REDACTED and minus a spine. It took a while to come to this conclusion, but I got. Then I tried to keep on to that. That was the tricky part.

Reeves seems a bit too slick to pull off gumshoe, paranormal or no. He’s been in the shadow of Neo’s leather coat a bit too long. Constantine is supposed to be gritty; guy’s like a paranormal MacGuyver. But he’s too smooth, regardless of how used to he is with dealing with the occult, demons, angels and maintaining a balance between plains. Reeve’s Constantine is irritated, not wizened by a lifetime of battling endless evil. And all he has to show for it is a hopeless addiction to cigarettes and their REDACTED. Guy should’ve been more pissy. Just saying.

Weisz doesn’t fare much better. She comes across as too willowy to be taken seriously as a grizzled cop, and eventually descends into reactive, damsel-in-distress territory. Sure, she’s easy on the eyes but her on screen time just grates. Despite her matter is the movie’s maguffin she sure seems overly passive in solving her sister’s “murder.” She’s a tag-along, made worse by her gaping over the supernatural stuff that is Constantine’s (stale) bread and butter. Too bad there.

But like I said with the supporting cast, ah, therein lies some rub.

I really dug Swinton as the reluctant angel, the oracle. Here’s a good (if not the only) example of mystery that the movie was ostensibly pushing. Her screen time was brief, but crucial. I’ve always enjoyed Swinton’s air of nervous dignity, codified by her later performance in Michael Clayton (check it out. I’ll wait). Sometimes less is more, especially in an overwrought comic book movie like this one.

Hounsou as Papa Midnite was a trick, the Huggy Bear of the underworld underworld. Sharp, flinty and has seen too much. Barely tolerating every aspect of his being. Sure, he’s the man with the plan, but the plan’s been leased out to “forces” beyond his command. Papa can see the horizon, but not the dawn, and makes no bones about that to our pretty hero with something on his shoulders. That and Hounsou is something our lead is sorely lacking: he’s tough.

What really surprised me was Gavin “Everything Zen” Rossdale as the schemin’ demon Balthazar. His show was quite affecting. I am as shocked as you may be that Mr Stefani could pull off such a scuzzy, intriguing performance. Rossdale’s Balthazar reminded me of a riverboat gambler: all about the stakes before the prize. His motivation was like that quote, “some goals are so worthy, it’s glorious even to fail.” Might sound high-minded about a Brit grunge also-ran’s acting debut, but he played his sh*t to the hilt and the rest of the cast should’ve taken notice. F*ck Razorblade Suitcase BTW. Don’t care what the critics said. Neither did they.

Erm, I’m gonna leave Shia as Spanky, er, Chas the cabbie alone. Can’t win ’em all.

Stormare was a trip. He’s always bleakly funny. From Grey in Fargo to the cosmonaut in Armageddon, his lot is humor, and always necessarily left of center. Sinister humor here. Even though his presence is made known in the third act, it was worth the wait, at least for this blogger who was biting his nails not out of suspense but of desperation (at least I was feeling something). Stormare was perfectly cast for his role, and played it to the hilt as well as teetered on cheesy. But good cheesy, his stock in trade. These supporting characters (even the annoying Max Baker) almost, almost redeemed this whole paranormal rigamarole. Can’t cross the Mississippi in three small steps and all. Splash.

Despite the sick supporting cast trying to hold it all together, Constatntie’s final act eventually devolved into murky/busy. Too many ends to tie up. It was as if Lawrence threw down his bullhorn, threw up his hands and just threw up. There was too much to wrap up in a few scenes, like a Buzzcocks song with too many lyrics and not enough notes. A tempest of sluggish, fast and harried. Yeah, we got our resolution but what the hell happened? Without giving anything away I felt all bamboozled. Not to mention cheated. Constantine felt muted at times, subdued, retrained. Then we flipped the coin and got jagged, unhinged action, not necessarily fun or coherent. Not sure in the grand scheme if this was the redeeming factor in an uneven paranormal crime procedural, or just illustrating the studio wasn’t exactly sure how to open this Pandorum. Truth be told I would’ve preferred more key restraint, namely with our cast. Like it seems with pleasantly schlocky flicks like this the leads grate while the supporting cast is cast in a more flattering light. Too bad even that appeal was so incongruent. Gave me a headache.

I know, I know. I’ve been real cagey with this installment; giving you mostly bones with very little meat. That word “incongruent” best describes Constantine. But it ain’t all a snarky labyrinth; my screed might be read as a passive way to suggest you all seeing Constantine without a lot of personal investment. Take it that way. Don’t misunderstand me (any more than you already have), this movie is subpar as both an action movie as well as a comic book adaptation. It does retain a certain charm, however; consider Constantine as an acid test for how far comic book movies have come over the past decade-plus. Sure, it’s heavy on the bombast and light on the human—and/or inhuman—factor, but there’s that charm thing hanging in the ether. Watching Constantine is akin to a one night stand: sure, it’s fun while it lasts, as long as you abandon all thoughts of commitment the next morning.

Don’t forget to leave cab fare on the pillow, fer Christ’s sake.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Cast this demon out. Sorry, Neo.


Stray Observations…

  • “You goin’ down?” “Not if I can help it.”
  • Always wondered what do non-smoking actors smoke when they smoke in the movie?
  • “I need to eat.”
  • Cow tipping (rimshot)!
  • “Two hundred dollar shirt, by the way.”
  • Okay. The tub scene was disturbing.
  • “Not bad, kid.”
  • “It’s called pain. Get used to it.”

Next Installment…

Once upon a time, there was an Irish vacuum cleaner repair man that met a florist who loved to play piano…

That sounds promising.


 

RIORI Vol. 1, Installment 18: Francis Lawrence’s “I Am Legend” (2007)


MV5BMTU4NzMyNDk1OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTEwMzU1MQ@@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_


The Players…

Will Smith, Alice Braga, Dash Mihok, Charlie Tahan…and Abbey.


The Story…

When a contagion spreads across the planet and turns the human race into bloodthirsty mutants, civilization’s last hope for survival lies with scientist Robert Neville, the last normal man on Earth.


The Rant…

Richard Matheson’s writing has never been regarded as “subtle.” In fact, his work has been compared to the literary equivalent of being bashed in the head with a sledgehammer, and this an alleged complement. Then again, there’s nothing really subtle about the concept of being ridden down by an unholy fleet of blood-sucking vampires out to chew your ass, which happens to be attached to the only human left on the planet. Pressure.

For those not in the know, Matheson was a quietly prolific writer of suspense and science fiction; some of his work was translated to many original episodes of the seminal TV series The Twilight Zone. For those in the know, he penned the classics “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet,” “The Invaders” and “Third From The Sun” (oh yeah…that guy). Steven Speilberg’s first feature, Duel, was based on the short story of the same name. Several of his novels were adapted for Hollywood also, like Hell House, What Dreams May Come (which won an Oscar), A Stir Of Echoes and, yes, I Am Legend.

That particular novel has been made into a movie four times, including this version as well as the classic adaptations starring the inimitable Vincent Price and that damned dirty ape-hater Charlton Heston. So in long, Matheson’s fantastical work has proven to be quite versatile and malleable for the silver screen, stylized to fit the tastes and times. In short, he’s Stephen King’s favorite author and primary influence. Both say something about earning an audience.

That being said, it begs the question: “Four times?!?” What, they didn’t get it right the first three?

In this our 21st Century, we moviegoers have been bombarded with remakes of classic (and not so classic) movies. Here’s a story: years ago, 2004 into ’05, when I was a practicing alcoholic (I got real good at it too) and had a lot of down time to indulge in whiskey and cinema, I noticed a lot of commercials for new movies that I knew to be remakes. Since I had the time, I decided to keep track of how many films came out that year that were either remakes, reboots or sequels (or even prequels).

I counted 40. I sh*t you not. I double-checked this via the IMDb.

Forty. That’s a lot of laziness on behalf of Hollywood. And a mean way to fleece money off people. I guess the bigwigs figured the majority of moviegoers were either too lazy or too ignorant and wouldn’t bat an eyelash for a retread of a pre-existing film. Americans in general already have miniscule attention spans already; nostalgia is breakfast. Maybe the movie moguls were right. It might explain why I Am Legend is the fourth iteration of this movie whose origins span 40 years into the past. That’s pre-Internet, so what’d you expect?

Wait, wait. I’m not saying all remakes are bad. Some are quite good, like Hitchcock’s second go-round with The Man Who Knew Too Much, John Sturges’ classic western The Magnificent Seven, or even Mark Waters’ much-needed update of Freaky Friday. So before we pass (anymore) judgment, let’s pick apart the latest version of a classic man-versus-vampires epic and see on which side of fence it falls…


Geneticist Robert Neville (Smith) was a specialist for the US Army. Was. His life has changed a bit since then. In 2009, the men in the white lab coats made a breakthrough in medical science. The good news, by a means of introducing a retrograde virus into the subject’s recombinant DNA, they have found a cure for cancer. The bad news, it might turn you into a bloodthirsty freak. Uh-oh.

Fast forward three years. Earth is a wilderness. Manhattan is a desert island. The once proud skyline is crumbling. Nature has reasserted herself. No taxicabs. No Internet. No Starbucks. Not a human soul remains. Save one. Robert Neville. By all means, he’s the last human on Earth. Immune to the plague he inadvertently helped in creating and dodging any mutant that might cross his threshold.

During the day, Robert whiles the daylight away by hunting, foraging, playing golf off of the tail of an SR-71 Blackbird and just trying to keep busy or else lose his mind. He holes himself up in lab in the basement of his Washington Square brownstone, now a bunker, trying to cook up a remedy for the virus that has turned Earth’s populace into what are essentially vampires. Dark Seekers are the technical terms. By night he locks down the house, cracks out the heavy artillery and waits for day to come. All the while things outside are going bump in the night.

Time alone is endless. Well, Robert’s not exactly alone. His only companion is his German Shepherd Sam (Abbey), an anchor of sanity in his lonely purgatory. And a reminder of his past, when things were simpler and a lot less bloody. She’s his best buddy, and together they’re like a married couple. There are scary things out there. Best keep tight to your friends…friend.

Like clockwork, Robert broadcasts on the AM dial a distress/rescue message to any survivors out there. It’s a call of sanction, but moreover it’s a plea for help. Because every day that dies into night might be his last day. After all, for a man that’s lost everything—everything—in his world, it’d be nice to share the nothingness with another human being.

Will Dr. Neville find a cure for the virus? Will he survive the onslaught of hungry mutants? Is he doomed to be alone forever? Only time will tell, and Robert Neville has nothing but that…


This film received some inordinate bits of flack by critics and audiences alike. Mostly directed at Smith. Like I noted in my After Earth dissection, I figure Smith is tiring of the maverick, comical roles he’s made his money on. Audiences seem like they’re not ready for a serious, dour individual like Robert. Like all the characters he’s portrayed most of his career, people would prefer to have Agent Jay or even the Fresh Prince up there on the big screen. But like with Adam Sandler’s constant re-hashing the buffoon roles, occasionally you gotta pull a Punch Drunk Love.

I Am Legend is not your conventional vampire movie. For one, the term “vampire” isn’t mentioned once. The Dark Seekers are not pseudo-romantic, quasi-sexual beings of immortal emulation. They’re fucking freaks. An abomination to God and Nature. A plague, and the film depicts that as so; swarming rabid things crammed full of viruses. Redolent stinking hordes of shrieking rats preying on anything that bleeds. Have I made my point yet? Right. The Dark Seekers are very rather chilling and quite effective at establishing and maintaining Neville’s solitary nightmare atmosphere.

And poor Bob is stranded alone on Earth with the lot of them. In fact, “stranded” may be the key term that describes the feel of the film. For over an hour into the film, Smith is the only actor, not counting Abbey of course. We walk by his side, we only sees things that he sees, we truly live through it all vicariously through the character Robert Neville. We, as an audience, are stranded with him. Neville’s pathos is so consuming that as the movie progresses, you start to wonder if kind of relishes his solitude; wear it like a badge of pride or as sackcloth and ashes? He was directly responsible for the plague after all. Guilt can be a powerful weapon. So much so that it becomes ever obvious that Neville may be losing his mind. Wouldn’t you?

It’s good that Legend is quickly engaging. Not as in “fast pace.” The movies gets your attention very swiftly, and fails to falter. It has an urgent agendum, and quietly sweeps you up. This happens despite for the first half hour, all we really see is Neville driving through deserted streets of a ruined Manhattan, scrounging for food and sundries (yes, I used the word sundries) and tooling around in his lab. Smith is adopting a stoic, silent type of leading man, letting his actions tell the story. At this he does a fine job. A sort of relatable everyman in a dire circumstance. Him wandering the landscape gently affixes his sense of solitude to the viewer. By the way, how do filmmakers clear the streets like that? I mean, some of it is CGI, but the rest?

Speaking of CGI, I had a real issue (but not a big one) with the digitally rendered…well, everything in Legend. The effects were rather weak. You could almost smell the green screen wafting off the projector. What would be assumed to enhance the ferocity of the Dark Seekers only made them look rubbery and cartoon-like (still, rubbery scary cartoons). I admit I was watching a DVD on an HD television, but I’ve seen lower tech movies and the patchiness didn’t seep through. What the vamps lacked in looks, however, was made up for with screeches. So bravo Dolby.

The only other gripe I had was the film’s resolution. It had sort of a “duh” feeling to it. Considering what kind of man Robert Neville is, one would think he’d come to the proper conclusion light years ago. This would make the film really short though, and not worth the ten bucks admission. So we’ll ignore that as best we can for now.

Legend is very stark film, not unlike Matheson’s fiction. There is very little subtlety involved in the story. Bob’s alone, struggling to retain a sense of normalcy and avoiding the baddies. Not much else to the plot. You don’t really wonder if he’ll get out of this hell, nor do you invest much interest in that. It’s just watching him running errands basically. This was, in fact, the general feel of the novel some critics have said.

There are still very little amenities here. For instance, what attempts as humor here, doesn’t. It’s difficult to tell if it’s intentional or not. Smith has been understood as a comical presence in Hollywood, after all. And as for his acting, it’s some of the best he’s done in years. He’s essentially carrying the movie more or less by himself. He better be good. Again, and I hate to keep hammering on this, Neville’s sense of isolation really fills up the white space here.

Speaking of filling up space, there is next to no soundtrack. Silence—the absence of man-made noises like cars and general hustle and bustle—again creates the feeling of a desolate planet. How could you feel alone with smartphones bleeping everywhere? Like I said, stark.

Overall Legend was a pretty good little slice of cinema. I say little because it was released in the middle of December. Oscar time, not blockbuster time. And since it recouped only (yes, only) $100,000,000 at the box office, you could say it was a loss leader for Smith. Seeing that the original Men In Black movie raked in over $500,000,000, Will might have a long-ass time to go to shed some skin.

I liked Legend. I wouldn’t want to watch it again. For all its stylistic efforts, it lacked that je en sais quai I get from time to time, even from the bad sh*t I am tricked into watching. As I said it wasn’t typical Will Smith fare. Still, it had some merit as far as remakes go. It kept closer to the original source material, but even the tightest scenarists should know that following the book line for line leaves little room for interpretation. All that gooey solitude of the movie that I keep harping on was engrossing, but it did get tedious after a time. Maybe too much alone time with Will Smith’ll do that to you. Then again, the same can be said of Mathson’s stories.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Then turn it off. Then go read the book. Alone. In the dark. Get it?


Stray Observations…

  • “Just the way you like it: disgusting.”
  • I read once that Smith and Abbey would spend “sessions” alone for weeks at a time before, during and after filming so that they could create a special bond. Talk about creating on screen chemistry.
  • Saw the accident with the knife coming. Smith’s scream is priceless.
  • “It’s my birthday. You wanna sing?”
  • “Please say hello to me.” Pretty much captures the spirit of the film.
  • The toss away line, “Let’s say hello to mom” has a deeper gravity later in the film. It might be a nod to a theme Matheson employed in his fiction. Or maybe it was lifted directly form the source text. I dunno.
  • Nice detail with the weight loss. The flashback scenes feature Smith as sort of well-fed. Later in the film he looks as if he’s aged ten years.
  • “I like Shrek.”

Next Installment…

Billy Crudup feels just like Jesus’ Son, but not in a messianic kind of way.