When I first saw the “red-band” trailer for Legion, it got my attention. Paul Bettany, who has been the highlight of such humdrum films as A Knight’s Tale gets top billing in a end-of-humanity disaster flick, where a legion of angels is the enemy? And that annoying doc from “Private Practice” (TV) is sure to end up part of the body count? Sounds good!
But, could the film live up to the trailer, or had Paul picked a lemon for his first-time starring role?
Paul Bettany, after easily upstaging Heath Ledger in A Knight’s Tale and contributing another star turn in another minor role in A Beautiful Mind (2001), has suddenly discovered a niche for himself. After playing a twisted, God-obsessed killer in The Da Vinci Code (2006), he’s apparently decided that horror thrillers with religious overtones are his cup of tea. His two latest, Legion and the upcoming Priest (2011) fall neatly into that same category.
In Legion, he plays the angel Michael, who, going against the wishes of God, has decided humanity still can be saved. He goes to battle against his fellow angels in an all-out-war for the very survival of the human race. As more of a Terminator figure than the gentle soul an angel is normally portrayed as, Bettany’s Michael is a gun-toting action anti-hero. He helps gets the viewer’s adrenaline pumping by saying little and unleashing carnage in nearly every sequence.
While that may be fun, it also gives Bettany little chance to shine as the solid character actor viewers remember him as. It leaves viewers feeling a little shortchanged. Sure, the action’s fun – but Bettany has already shown he’s better than just another action hero wannabe.
Lucas Black, after doing some high-speed drifting in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006), changes pace for Legion, portraying a rather slow country bumpkin with surprising skill. Almost too good, as viewers may think the drifting star was the bigger veneer, and he’s now letting his real roots show through. Dennis Quaid, who kick-started his flagging career back into high gear with his determined father routine in The Day After Tomorrow (2004), plays another father figure in Legion. For him, the role seems like a step in the wrong direction.
Charles S. Dutton and another former Fast & Furious franchise racer, Tyrese Gibson, also put in performances. Both play rather bland versions of characters (given cheap props like a gun or a hook to give them more depth). Dutton shines in his role anyway, while Gibson merely sputters through to his next paycheck. As expected, Kate Walsh (the afore-mentioned “Private Practice” (TV) doc) doesn’t contribute much to the film. She comes across as the most unbelievable of the bunch, and that’s saying something.
Legion starts with an interesting premise, complete with horrendous connotations (God has turned against man). It goes on to introduce the disturbances in just the right way to both the viewer and the characters (a kindly old woman turns cannibal, then climbs the walls). It confines the characters in a relatively small area…then skips a serious step or two on the way to getting to the massive horde that is the foe of the film.
Up to the point that Michael (Bettany) arrives in their little corner of the world, the actions of these characters, while extreme, seem to fall well within the realms of normalcy in such a bizarre situation. Frightened at first, they take action to save themselves. They go on to bundle into a car to rush one of their number to the nearest hospital. Turned around, they end up having to take refuge back at their starting point.
With only those few inklings of their plight, they are naturally suspicious of Michael when he first arrives. Suddenly, after a tense stand-off, they take Michael at his rather strange word, gear up with machine guns which he brought, and unleash a hail of fire down on (as even they call them) “normal people”. And with that, the viewer suddenly takes a step back from the film with a startled “Huh?”
Most films require a logical step-by-step process to get viewers to accept the characters decisions when their world suddenly turns crazy – either figuratively or, as is the case with most zombie flicks, literally. That way, the viewer sees a justification – or at least, an understanding – for the actions the characters may take. The more bizarre the action, the more steps needed to get the viewer to that point.
Legion apparently didn’t have time for all that, and instead skipped ahead to the good part, leaving the viewer to wonder. What kind of people, despite a few harrowing sequences, trust a man in a stolen police car carrying machine guns and ordering them to open fire on a mass of “normal” people? Is it because he’s white? Is that the message the film is trying to convey? After all, it’s already played up the uneasy distrust these folks have for a black man. They even go so far as to have them commenting more on the gun they find out he’s carrying than the fact that he used it to save their lives.
Whatever the reason, the film loses a lot of it’s steam – and a few number of viewers – with that leap to mass murder. The viewer never quite reconnects with the film after that. Legion tries to lure the viewer back in, going from more shoot-outs to one-on-one “tests” with some of the characters. But most of it is ill-used and largely wasted on a viewer that now keeps their distance.
The special effects, a must for any horror flick, are top-notch. They manage to shock and surprise the viewer on more than one occasion. Whether it’s Grandma leaping to the ceiling and scuttling like a crab, or an ice cream man that stretches, the special effects are quite memorable. It’s too bad the rest of the film isn’t.
While Paul Bettany may be happy to finally get top billing in a film, Legion probably deserved another look before he accepted the role. With him spending most of the film stomping his way Terminator-like through foes, a lot of his more subtle charm shown in his previous roles is also stomped underfoot. Toss in too many cardboard characters armed with nothing more than cheap hooks (one quite literally) to try to make them more interesting. Add in a leap of faith the viewer can’t quite go along with, and Legion, despite some fun special effects, fizzles it’s way to a rather Hollywood-ized ending. Legion will leave the viewer wondering what could have been, instead of what was.