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Legion (2010) - Movie Review

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Diner Serves Apocalypse, Easy on the Destruction


Published: January 23, 2010

In “Legion” the world ends not with a bang but with a short stack. Recycling motifs from “The Birds,” “Near Dark,” the “Terminator” films and other apocalyptic fantasies, the film convenes a collection of strangers — upper-middle-class white family with issues, black father with handgun, etc. — at a diner in the Mojave Desert, where they are caught in the crossfire of a celestial battle.

Their task is to mow down waves of angelically possessed humans (easy to kill even by zombie standards) and hold off a mace-wielding ninja angel while waiting for the diner’s waitress to give birth to the child who will save us all.

Unfortunately, the script by Scott Stewart, who directed, and Peter Schink emphasizes stagebound melodramatics and banal television-style catharsis over action and humor; it’s like “The Petrified Forest” (the 1936 film of Robert E. Sherwood’s crisis-in-a-diner play) with assault rifles. The leaden dialogue and flat-footed storytelling hobble a talented cast that includes Dennis Quaid, Charles S. Dutton, Jon Tenney and Kate Walsh; only Paul Bettany, as an action-hero angel who takes the humans’ side, and Adrianne Palicki of “Friday Night Lights,” as the pregnant waitress, appear to be taking things seriously.

Amid a bull market for end-of-days tales, “Legion” stands out for its explicitly biblical underpinnings and its claustrophobia. There are no orgies of planetary destruction; the action almost never leaves the diner, which may be just as well, since a short scene in heaven looks as if it were filmed on the set of a community college Shakespeare production.

Directed by Scott Stewart; written by Mr. Stewart and Peter Schink; director of photography, John Lindley; edited by Steven Kemper; music by John Frizzell; production designer, Jeff Higinbotham; produced by David Lancaster and Michel Litvak; released by Screen Gems. Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes.

WITH: Paul Bettany (Michael), Lucas Black (Jeep Hansen), Tyrese Gibson (Kyle), Adrianne Palicki (Charlie), Charles S. Dutton (Percy Walker), Jon Tenney (Jay), Kevin Durand (Gabriel), Willa Holland (Audrey Anderson), Kate Walsh (Sandra Anderson) and Dennis Quaid (Bob Hansen).

Scott Stewart Legion

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Scott Stewart at event of Legion

Kate Walsh and Scott Stewart at event of Legion

Still of Scott Stewart in Legion

Legion review (2010) - 2

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Every now and then we get a movie that makes little sense, but is still enjoyable to watch. There's plenty of silly and hokey material in Scott Stewart's directorial debut Legion yet the film chugs along at a brisk pace, has a handful of spry action sequences and features a performance or two that manages to elevate the material. It's dumb fun, but dumb just the same and is one of those pictures with parts better than its whole. You almost want to give it a pass because of how good the film could have been even though it fails in many, many aspects. Stewart cut his teeth as a senior member of the visual f/x house The Orphanage, working on such pics as Iron Man, the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, and my personal favorite, the Korean import The Host. He knows the ins and outs of special f/x and to show he can take the reins of a production, has written a decent genre picture with Peter Schink that's full of plenty of holes. Yet Stewart's visual style and ability to keep the story and heavy exposition fluid demonstrates that he may actually deserve to sit in that director's chair, even though what he's created is more than a bit silly.

The premise of Legion is simple: the apocalypse is here. An order has been given by God that mankind is to be exterminated. Why do you ask? Well in young waitress Adrienne Palecki's opening voiceover, her best guess is that “maybe God got tired of all the b.s.?” If God is all knowing, all powerful and aware of everything we've done and will do, I don't think he'll wipe us out in the same hateful fashion that Legion presents. If he is tired of any b.s. it's plots like the one presented in this movie. With an army of angels set to march on Earth, God's most prized soldier the archangel Michael (Paul Bettany) decides to defy his orders in a last ditch effort to save mankind. He decends from the heavens, cuts off his wings with a hunting knife and within five minutes manages to raid an L.A. armory, steal some poor schmuck's trenchcoat and ride East with a truckload of weapons. His destination: Arizona, where Palecki works at a roadside diner in the middle of the desert. She's not only expecting a baby, but has shacked up with a nice guy, whose not even the baby's daddy (Lucas Black) and his stubborn father who owns the establishment (Dennis Quaid). Before Bettany can reach the truck stop and warn its inhabitants which include one-handed cook Charles S. Dutton, a dysfunctional upper-class family (Kate Walsh, Jon Tenney and Willa Holland) and a mysterious drifter (Tyrese Gibson), trouble arrives in the form of a little old lady who swears like a sailor, has a mouth full of shark teeth and can climb the walls and ceiling like a squirrel. How can this sweet little old lady do this? Well apparently she's been touched by an angel. Well okay, not really touched, more like possessed.

Confused? Yeah me too. Apparently God's first wave of assault is to have his angels possess the weak willed to attack the strong. Rather than emanate a celestial glow, these victims look more like they've been demonically possessed and attack anyone with “great vengeance and furious anger.” They represent a God who is pissed and full of murderous rage. Huh? Yeah, I know, kinda hokey, but the point is they are depicted this way to represent lethal supernatural adversaries for our heroes. Bettany arrives on the scene with a trunk full of weapons and a warning that more like the old lady will come and they'd all better learn how to shoot assault rifles a.s.a.p. With television, radio and phone services knocked out, the apocalypse has already begun to spread across the Earth and its up to Bettany to help these eight humans defend the only decent roadside diner within fifty miles. Actually he's there to protect Palecki's baby, whose birth may be the key to saving mankind, but Quaid does cook up a great T-bone steak that looks worth fighting for.

Sitting through Legion one gets the feeling that Stewart and Schink cribbed more than a few ideas from films like Assault on Precinct 13, the zombie genre and plenty of end of the world stories. We've seen it all before and it's more than a bit familiar. What actually gives the film some substance is the fact that it moves at a brisk pace, never pokes fun at itself and has some interesting character development. This is one of those rare cases where a film filled with silly ideas works at times because it takes itself seriously. Just about every actor from relative unknown Palecki to veterans like Quaid and Dutton get an opportunity for their own character beats that don't feel forced or like written dialogue. Quaid doesn't want his son to end up as lost as the customers they get, Dutton wants to leave this world proud of the life he's led and Palecki actually admits that she never wanted the child she's carrying even though it may now be their salvation. The reflective moments of each character are probably the only convincing serious bits in the picture. Some have familiar “when I was a kid” stories, while others reveal regrets for past sins or wrong choices, but nine times out of ten those moments actually work. I'm not a fan of Tyrese, but even he isn't too bad, even though his character makes his share of dumb choices. Can't say the same for Black, who is usually good at playing a tough bumpkin but fails to convince even though his character has noble intentions and pines for a girl who may never love him. The only time some dramatic weight is added to his character is when Bettany reveals that Black's resolve is the reason he chose to disobey orders.

Bettany, who I never pictured as an action lead, manages to give a solid performance as a soldier with more than just the weight of angelic wings on his shoulders. He maintains the sense of immediacy the picture establishes early on, keeping the story moving with either his ability to take action or bark orders like “open that door and we all die.” He could have been protecting Quaid's barbecue sauce recipe for all I cared and it almost didn't matter what he was doing or why because his determination made me want to follow him just about anywhere. Bettany is not only convincing as a battle hardened soldier, but a servant of God ready to defy his master for the right reasons. When he faces off with fellow angel Gabriel (Kevin Durand) it's a surprisingly touching scene between two brothers who still care for one another even though they are now on opposite sides. Gabriel follows God's murderous orders with no questions while Michael wishes to serve their father by “giving him what he needs” not what he wants.

Legion fails in its inability to rise above the conventions of similar genre pictures and on more than one occasion comes across as absolutely stupid. More than one character makes a bone headed move that puts them all in danger and when our heroes in the diner are completely surrounded by the possessed the story loses steam despite the fact that there's at least a few thousand “zombies” outside. Stewart does demonstrate a knack for playing around with a clever idea and making a little fun out of it. I'm still having trouble figuring out why God would choose to wipe out mankind by having his angels possess people, scream profanity and go on a murderous rampage. He's God, if he can do anything, why would he choose that? Sounds more like a silly plan cooked up by aspiring screenwriters than the almighty. I hope Stewart has some brighter ideas for his upcoming vampire picture Priest which re-teams him with Bettany. He's a smart filmmaker even though his stories can be a tad dumb.
© Ron Henriques