Besieged by angels... sort of ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Besieged by angels... sort of

My rating:

I like Biblical fantasy movies. Now, let me get this out of the way first - yes, they're fantasy. I don't see no angels and demons walking the streets outside my house, do I? And I don't tick the "Kristian" box in the "agama" section of application forms. So a film that features winged dudes, plus any other aspects of Christian mythology (yes, it's a mythology), is just another fantasy flick to me. That said, my first exposure to this genre was The Prophecy, which I totally dug. And then there was Kevin Smith's Dogma, which I liked even more. Yes, I like Biblical fantasy, but I wasn't sure about this one - everything about it looks really really B-grade.

Well, it was pretty decent. But as Biblical fantasy? Not much.

The archangel Michael (Paul Bettany) falls to earth and makes his way to Paradise Falls, a diner in the middle of the Mojave desert - run by owner Bob (Dennis Quaid), his son Jeep (Lucas Black), cook Percy (Charles S. Dutton) and pregnant waitress Charlie (Adrianne Palicki). Also present are a family stranded there when their car broke down - Howard (Jon Tenney), Sandra (Kate Walsh) and their teenage daughter Audrey (Willa Holland) - and Kyle (Tyrese Gibson), a traveler passing through. Michael tells them that the apocalypse is nigh; God has lost faith in humanity, and is sending angels to exterminate them. But Charlie's unborn child is mankind's last hope, and Michael - having disobeyed God Himself - will stop at nothing to protect him.

Not for the first time am I wondering if my four-star scale isn't broad enough to rate the movies I watch. I'm giving Legion three stars, but if my rating scale went up to five stars, I'd... also only give it three. Which is a lower by a good bit than what I'd give most of my three-star movies, particularly the last two I watched. See, three stars means I enjoyed it. And I did, at the time. The action was decent, the acting was effective, I liked the characters and cared about them, and since that last thing in particular is pretty damn rare, I was feeling rather kindly towards this movie when the credits rolled.

But I can't really recommend it. Why? Because while it's a serviceable action movie, as a Biblical fantasy it's kinda meh. Michael has no supernatural powers; he merely fights with a whole lot of guns. Another archangel, Gabriel (Kevin Durand), shows up near the end, and aside from the wings and a wicked mace, there's nothing particularly angelic about him either. The whole thing about Charlie's baby makes no sense; if he is, as implied, the second coming of Christ, why is God trying to kill him? How can Christ be reborn without God's say-so? And where's the Devil in all this? Even The Prophecy knew that in a Biblical fantasy in which angels are at war, ol' Lucifer ought to at least take an interest.

The thing about Biblical fantasy is that it's all in the implication. You don't have the SFX budget to portray the actual host of Heaven, that's fine. But through things like dialogue and acting, you can make us believe that these two blokes are bona fide angels - immortal beings who serve an ineffable Lord out of love and blind loyalty, but are always second to mankind in His eyes. There's a bit of it in Michael's scenes with Gabriel, and particularly when Michael reveals that he was the first of the angels to bow before humanity. It's little details like this that make a Biblical fantasy work, but there's just not enough of it here. The whole thing is largely just a siege film and not much more.

But it is a decent siege film lar. You'll recognize this particular subgenre if you've seen stuff like Assault on Precinct 13 (both remake and original), The Mist and Zulu. (Here are two lists of 'em). What makes a siege film work is a sense of claustrophobia, the desperation of facing overwhelming odds, and effective action scenes. The angels that attack the diner possess the bodies of ordinary people, and there's some freaky fun to be had watching our heroes fight off a monstrous old lady, and later a murderous little kid. It's scenes like this that make you think director and co-writer Scott Stewart was being deliberately cheesy, which is a smart way to approach this material.

And the most pleasant surprise is that the characters are quite nicely fleshed-out. Charlie doesn't really want her baby, and so she smokes even while eight months pregnant. Kyle looks like a gangbanger, but only wants to win custody of his son. Sandra has let her resentment of her rebellious daughter override her love. The character-building scenes tend to slow the pace, but at least Stewart knows how to get us emotionally invested in these people's plight. The cast are also largely up to the task (well, except for the one or two who get killed off early). Paul Bettany in particular has enough gravitas to make his role work, which is a good thing since most of the movie is riding on his wingless shoulders.

Y'know another thing about Biblical fantasies? Most of 'em avoid having God Himself as the antagonist - because, man, how do you resolve that conflict? Legion gives it a go, and it isn't particularly satisfying. I really have to wonder whether Stewart and his co-writer Peter Schink are familiar with this genre that they're playing in; they don't seem to have watched The Prophecy or Dogma or read Neil Gaiman's and Terry Pratchett's Good Omens, to name just three good examples. At least they made a decent siege film.

Update: Five-star scale implemented.

NEXT REVIEW: Adnan Sempit
Expectations: I'm actually looking forward to watching Shaheizy Sam again. The movie itself? No.