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Tyrese Gibson

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They Kick Ass for the Lord!

(With all apologies to Father McGruder.) Yes, y’all, the End of Days has come. There is a hole in the sky. John Cusack is off floating on his ark. Hobo Viggo and son are somewhere on I-95, “carrying the fire.” And, for their part, bad-ass evangelist Denzel Washington is apparently the last Jehovah’s Witness on Earth, and the fallen angel Paul Bettany is trying to take his broken wings and learn to fly again. (Did you know that every time a bell rings, an angel is shooting somebody in the face?)

In any event, I saw Allen and Albert Hughes’ The Book of Eli and Scott Stewart’s Legion on subsequent weekends (with another vaguely religious-themed movie in between, which I’ll get to in a bit), and they seem like they merit discussing together. Both are post-apocalyptic B-movies, and, weirdly enough, that’s B as in Bible: Both use Judeo-Christian themes as a pretext for ninety minutes or so of Matrix-y ass-kicking. And neither are as smart, entertaining or satisfying in their B-movieness as the Spierig’s recent Daybreakers. Of the two, Legion probably comes closer to finding that popcorn movie groove, just because it makes no bones about being unabashedly dumb — but it too slips off the rails in the final half-hour.

More on that in a bit. Let’s take the Hughes’ Book of Eli first. I should start by saying that I’m glad to see the Hughes brothers making a movie again, although I wish it was one a good deal better than this goofy drek. Their assured, eminently quotable 1993 debut Menace II Society is one of my favorite films of the nineties, and in a perfect world it should have gotten all the many props that went to John Singleton’s more Hollywood’y Boyz n the Hood of 1991. (“Now O-Dog was America’s worst nightmare: Young, black, and don’t give a f**k.“) And their take on From Hell in 2001 was laudably strange and decently compelling — It’s definitely not the worst Alan Moore adaptation out there, by a long shot.

To their credit, the Hughes give this post-apocalyptic America a bleached-out, Big Sky look that’s eye-catching…for the first half-hour of so. (After awhile, there get to be way too many slo-mo hero shots of Denzel and his eventual protege, Mila Kunis.) And, during that opening half-hour, it seems like Book of Eli might make for a pretty solid spaghetti western or samurai flick. There are two kinetic six-or-seven-on-one melees in particular, wherein a motley assortment of Borderlands-style goons and Mad Max castoffs meet the business end of Denzel’s machete, that suggest The Book of Eli will make for a pretty fun B-movie ride.

But then it all starts falling apart, mainly as a result of terrible writing. For it soon becomes clear that Denzel, a.k.a. Eli, is attracting attention in this World Gone Wrong because he is carrying — I kid you not — the Last King James Bible on Earth. Yes, somehow — only thirty years after the nukes fell — every single bible out of every single house, apartment, bookstore, mega-mart, and motel room on the planet has been destroyed…but one. This is apparently, it is said, because the survivors blamed the Bible for the End Times coming and destroyed them all. How the few remaining survivors managed to relay this message all around the world after communications had stopped is left unexplained. Nor do they show the poor irradiated schmoes who were forced to wander from burnt-out church to broken-down motel over those thirty years, scouring the Earth for the estimated 7.5 billion copies of the world’s most reproduced book. And they only missed one!

But that’s not all. So, Denzel is toting around that last Good Book, and the Big Bad of the local Bartertown — Gary Oldman — wants its immense persuasive power for his own. I forget the exact wording, but he does some monologuing to the effect of: Only with that bible in my possession will I have the words to exert my domination over the remnants of humankind! So, in other words, if he gets the Book under his thrall, Oldman will be the new prophet-king of social control. To which I say…huh? First off, at the risk of offending certain readers’ religious sensibilities — move along, Tom Cruise — hasn’t Oldman’s character ever heard of L. Ron Hubbard or Dianetics? (Or seen Zardoz, for that matter?) If you want to set up a new religion with yourself at its center, you don’t really need a KJV bible to do it. Second, it’s made abundantly clear that Oldman knows the bible pretty well from his early days anyway. He can’t just…wing it? How much more would you need other than the stories, which everybody knows, and a few choice excerpts like the Lord’s Prayer?

Not to give the game away, but The Book of Eli also suffers from a truly dumb Shyamalan ending which I will not disclose here. (Suffice to say, A Clockwork Orange notwithstanding, Malcolm McDowell showing up in the late going of any film isn’t usually a mark of quality. And if you really want to know the final turn, I’ll give a hint in spoiler-vision: “What do Rutger Hauer and Zhang Ziyi have in common?“) Now, to be fair to The Book of Eli (and as an AICN commenter pointed out), a lot of sci-fi and fantasy B-movies have plot devices that make it hard to sustain disbelief — time-traveling robots from the future, for example. True, Eli‘s central conceit is roughly similar to the plot of the very good A Canticle for Leibowitz (although that book takes place centuries after the nuclear holocaust, and the Catholic priests involved aren’t trying to preserve the Bible per se.) And, even the next movie I’m about to discuss makes less sense up front than Book of Eli‘s goofy “all the Bibles are gone!” schtick.

The difference is, in those other movies (Legion aside), once you accept the premise that robots can time-travel, Earth is now populated by damn dirty apes, vampires have taken over or whathaveyou, the rest of the story makes decent sense in that world, and is pretty darned entertaining to boot. The Book of Eli…not so much. For one, Denzel’s character is too superhuman throughout — After the first few fracases, there’s no sense at all that he ever might be in danger. More problematically, perhaps realizing that fundamental problem, the screenwriter (Gary Whitta) instead decides to punctuate pretty much every scene with women in sexual peril, a decision which is supremely lazy and, after awhile, borderline misogynistic. (Were you to play a drinking game involving one beverage for every time Mila Kunis, Jennifer Beals, or any other woman in The Book of Eli is threatened with rape or violence, or those threats are acted upon, you may just end up drunk enough to stop wondering what the hell is wrong with Gary Whitta.)

Anyway, all that aside, there are a few small glimmers of entertainment here and there in the later going, although they’re mostly meta moments: Michael Gambon and Frances De La Tour escape Hogwarts long enough to show up as gun-totin’ redneck cannibals, and both play it like they’re on some kind of dare. And Dracula does get to share another scene with his Renfeld, the inimitable Tom Waits. (Oldman and Washington are professionals anyway — neither condescend to this lousy material.) In the end, though, The Book of Eli is a bad movie with a dumb premise that doesn’t even seem to understand how bad or dumb it is. And that ultimately just makes it worse.


Now Scott Stewart’s Legion, on the other hand, wears its B-movie badness like a badge of honor, and that gets some points from me. I mean, Dennis Quaid and Charles Dutton as two short-order cooks, fending off demons in their middle-of-nowhere diner (in a place called Paradise Falls, no less)? These guys are hardened veterans of this sort of thing. They know the score, and they help bring the right sense of proportion to the rest of the survivors, including Adrianne Palicki, Tyrese, Kate Walsh, Willa Holland, and the underrated Lucas Black (who, on Sling Blade alone, really should’ve played Jake Lloyd’s part in The Phantom Menace.) In every scene they’re in, Quaid and Dutton manage to wordlessly convey their understanding that: Look at best, we’re making Tremors here, people.

In Legion, the End of Days wasn’t a man-made screw-up this time. Rather, in a fit of Old Testament wrath, our Father who art in Heaven decides that the whole mankind experiment has totally and utterly failed (maybe He caught wind of the whole reality-TV thing) and thus sends down a few plagues — locusts, angels, and whatnot — to smote us all into oblivion. Fortunately for us, the archangel Michael (Paul Bettany) isn’t down with the new program, and so he clips his wings, dons some choice duds and a ridiculous amount of firepower, and becomes humankind’s protector, or at least the protector of an unborn child that apparently will be some kind of second Messiah. (Think John Connor, but biblical.) And if he can save a few diner patrons while he’s at it, well the more the merrier.

So, in other words, if The Book of Eli was a post-apocalyptic western — a Stranger comes to Town and all that — Legion is really more of a zombie movie. It’s a bunch of random strangers thrown together by crisis, trying to survive against impossible supernatural odds without killing each other. Or, in other words, it’s The Prophecy meets Night of the Living Dead meets The Terminator meets Assault on Precinct 13. (At times, it also feels a lot like the considerably better Prince of Darkness, but without Alice Cooper around to play the possessed folk.) And, even more than with Eli, I vibed into its flagrant b-movieness for the first hour or so of its run.

The problem is, Stewart and co-writer Peter Schink don’t really seem to know where they want to take this thing. You know that old saw about throwing a bunch of characters together in a room and pretty soon they start to write themselves? Well, if Legion is any indication, sometimes they don’t. And so the movie starts to lose its early head of B-movie steam by the middle going, as the various survivors pair off and spin their wheels with “character-building” conversations that go nowhere. There are a few funny exchanges, most of which made it into the ubiquitous trailer. (“I don’t even believe in God!” “That’s ok, He doesn’t believe in you either.“) But even more than in most of these flicks, I found myself sitting around waiting for the next attack just to get things moving once more.

And that brings us to the other big problem. The ground rules here don’t make a whole lot of sense. So these zombies are angels? Clearly, gunfire cuts through them like butter, so they don’t seem any different from, you know, zombies. And why are they attacking in waves like this? What’s the plan here? I know the Lord works in mysterious ways, but…is He really one for acid-drenched booby traps? Schink and Stewart have one clever conceit here — that the most innocuous-looking people around are the ones you’ll really need to worry about to go bugnuts evil at the drop of a hat. But they just keep reusing it. When an old lady attacks (again, as per the trailer), it’s a clever reversal of expectations. But when little kids and the ice cream man later do the same, it all gets a bit redundant.

By the time the archangel Gabriel (Kevin Durand, seeming, in all honesty, pretty straight-to-video) shows up in the last half-hour, Legion just gives up any pretense of coherence. I can barely explain anything that happens after the remaining few souls scramble out of the diner, other than to say it really isn’t worth trying to explain anyway. To its credit, Legion may not suffer from the dreary self-seriousness of The Book of Eli, but the last reel is just as convoluted and nonsensical. And, as such, both movies end up feeling a bit like the lurid daydreams of an ADD-afflicted teenager, one who’s fallen asleep after way too much Red Bull, Bible Study, and Modern Warfare 2. It’s time to wrap this up, so if you’ll forgive a really terrible pun: Lacking conviction and passionate intensity, sadly, neither of these flicks are worth a second coming.

Gods and Broncos.

The B-movie preview that went over best at the midnight District 9 (even though it blatantly rips off everything off from Constantine to Preacher to The Prophecy to The Matrix): the trailer for Scott Stewart’s Legion, wherein fallen angel Paul Bettany must protect the unborn Chosen One 2.0, as well as the hardest working man in show business (Dennis Quaid) and a gaggle of other puny humans — Lucas Black, Tyrese Gibson, Kate Walsh, Adrianne Palicki, Willa Holland, and Charles S. Dutton — from, apparently, the wrath of God. (If the January release date didn’t tip you off, there’s a way-too-long, spoileriffic red-band trailer floating around which suggests this is basically as good as it gets. Still, it made for a fun two minutes.)

Also in the trailer bin: our first look at Jared Hess’ Gentlemen Broncos, with Michael Angarano (of Snow Angels), Jennifer Coolidge, Jemaine Clement, Mike White, and Sam Rockwell. I’m not a huge fan of the pedigree, tbh — I didn’t think much of Nacho Libre and thought Napoleon Dynamite was wildly overrated — but this does have the power combo of Jemaine and Rockwell in its favor.

Toys in the Attic.

In the wake of Wolverine comes a handful of explosion-heavy trailers for your pre-summery consumption: First up, Shia LeBoeuf and Megan Fox, as well as Tyrese, Turturro, et al, run with the robots again in the full trailer for Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Given how boring I found the first one, I’m pretty sure I’ll take a pass. But, hey, if “Bayformers” is your particular cup of awesome, have at it.

If your attic harbors a different set of deteriorating toys, however, Dennis Quaid is assembling a top-notch team — Channing Tatum, Marlon Wayans, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rachel Nichols, Ray Park — to avenge the Eiffel Tower in the new trailer for Stephen Sommers’ GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra. (That’s Sommers of the woeful Van Helsing, by the way. Also, is it just me, or aren’t bad summer movies completely abusing the after-the-colon-subtitle this year? It reminds me of my teaching days.)

Anyway, imo this looks really terrible, and I barely know who any of these characters are — the ninja-fellow was called Snake Eyes, right? So the only point of interest I’m finding here, with the possible exception of the Ninth Doctor paying the bills, is Sienna Miller as the Baroness. Thing is, I already fell for that British-vixen-in-a-leather-catsuit trick once with Underworld, which was also terribad. So in the parlance of the ex-decider, “Fool me once, shame on you. Ya fool me, you can’t get fooled again.

Finally — and this one might actually be decent — South Africans complain about the new refugee camp in their midst in the teaser for Neil Blomkamp’s District 9. This has been done before with James Caan and Mandy Patinkin in Alien Nation, but I like the verite style, and it’ll be interesting to see where Blogkamp (and producer Peter Jackson) go with it. Count me in.

(Death) Racing Straight-to-Video.

Tyrese Gibson, Jason Statham, and Joan Allen are cast in a forthcoming remake of the 1975 cult film Death Race 2000, to be helmed by (notorious hack) Paul W. S. Anderson. Uh, Joan Allen? That’s “Judi Dench in The Chronicles of Riddick” weird. Update: Al Swearingen’s in too.

Facing the Android’s Conundrum.

(I know, I know, they’re not androids. Sorry, that song‘s been in my head all week.) Well, I kept my expectations low and didn’t really look for anything other than two hours of air conditioning and some big dumb summer fun. But, even by that low standard, Michael Bay’s Transformers is less than meets the eye. Mind you, I didn’t go in with a litany of fanboy complaints on hand…just as car culture somehow bypassed me as a kid, I never much grokked into Transformers back in the day. I did see the cartoon (and the cartoon movie with Orson Welles) a few times, and tried to reassemble the occasional Decepticon over at one friend or another’s place. And, before seeing this 2007 incarnation, I would’ve thought it was a pretty perfect match of director and material: True, Michael Bay movies generally tend to be terrible (although I didn’t mind The Island so much), but he’s definitely in love with the strict machines, and, if nothing else, has a knack for filming sleek, impressive car chases (cf. Island, Bad Boys 2.) But, this…well, this is about as dull and unengaging a movie about gigantic fighting alien-robots as you can imagine. Sure, the special effects team earn their keep with a few brief, shining moments, but the movie as a whole is a badly paced, surprisingly boring affair…It’s an hour and a half of interminable set-up, long, needless digressions, and military-industrial gobbledygook that eventually descends into stuporous, standard-issue Bayhem. If you were going to see this movie, you likely already have. But, if you’ve been on the fence…abort, retry, ignore.

As Transformers begins, the voice of Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) booms forth the backstory: An ancient cataclysmic war between an alien race of good robots (Autobots) and bad robots (Decepticons) over the whereabouts of an all-powerful MacGuffin (The Cube) has finally spilled over to our planet, Earth. Uh, did I say our planet? I’m sorry, this is in fact Michael Bay’s Earth, where cameras endlessly flit around people like wayward moths, the NSA hires hot Australian coeds to be their top computer experts, and extended scenes involving nothing but pseudomilitary babble is considered compelling. Anyway, while the bad guys play hell with US army units stationed in Qatar, the good guys (for reasons left unexplained) already know to track down one Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBoeuf), a quirky, Cusack-ish eleventh-grader who, when he’s not trying vainly to woo the quarterback’s girlfriend Mikaela (Megan Fox), hawks his Arctic explorer great-grandfather’s personal effects on Ebay. Sam initially encounters these well-meaning alien life forms in the form of his first ride, a bitchin’ Camaro known as Bumblebee (Arguably the movie’s best non-robot-scenes come from the car’s early, Christine-like behavior.) But, soon, he’s met the bad guys too, in the form of a killer cop car known as Starscream. And, before you can say “My, that felt lifted from Terminator 2,” Sam and his new potential ladyfriend (who’s, conveniently, an amateur mechanic) have been irrevocably caught up in the intergalactic-robot melee, a fracas which, it turns out, the MIB-like government suits known as Sector 7 have known about since the days of Herbert Hoover. (Hmm, interesting. Is this dissertation-worthy?)

You may think I’m being too hard on this film — this is a movie based on twenty-year-old toys, after all. (One shudders to wonder if Voltron, My Little Pony, Care Bears, Cabbage Patch Kids and Teddy Ruxpin are all getting the live-action treatment in due course.) But, like I said, I’m willing to sit through a lot of deadly-dull exposition in a July 4th movie such as this to witness big robots beating on each other…but not this much exposition. After its Qatar debut, Transformers takes entirely too long to move out of first gear, and even then, it downshifts for bizarre, barely diverting digressions. (See, for example, Sam trying to hide his giant new friends from his parents.) Conversely, by the time the final battle happens in a city somewhere near the Hoover Dam, it includes so much vehicular carnage packed into fifteen-to-twenty minutes that it barely registers. Throw in the occasional blatant message moments like Sam discussing the car not taken, or the revelation of Mikaela’s checkered (flag?) past, and the movie starts to feel like a straight-up stinker. (I haven’t even mentioned John Turturro, who’s more over the top here than he was in Lebowski, and about one-twentieth as entertaining.)

The only thing that redeems Transformers in the end, is the impressive work of ILM — when two robots tumble, skate, and slide across an interstate highway, a scorpion-shaped Decepticon leaps out of the sand behind terrified troops, or Starscream lunges from car to robot back to car in one sweeping arc, Transformers offers a few tantalizing moments of real visual grandeur. In the end (and no disrespect to La Boeuf, who’s actually a pretty appealing presence throughout), it’s the number-crunching machines at Industrial, Light, and Magic that are the real stars here, however brief and flickering. But I guess that makes a certain amount of sense.

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