I Am Legend

December 19, 2007

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Released: Boxing Day 

Yes Will Smith, we know you’re legend. It’s been a busy crimbo period for Oscar but we managed to squeeze in some vampire-blasting action ahead of the release of I Am Legend, even if the ego-stroking title was rather a turn-off.

The widely anticipated biomedical creepathon is pitched somewhere between 28 Days Later and Children Of Men. In a dystopian future Will Smith plays Robert Neville, who doesn’t seem to know whether he’s a soldier, a scientist, a policeman or just a smooth talkin’ black dude. Luckily for us he has a stab at filling all those boots, coming to the rescue when the cure for cancer ironically kills off most of the planet. From his basement laboratory in the ghost town of New York, he must reverse the mutation that is turning all the patients into pale-faced blood-sucking freaks before he is eaten alive. A delicious recipe for some kick-ass apocalypse prevention… Big Willy-style!

The film is a bonafide blockbuster and pulls off the slick action sequences and nervy suspense bits with a Spielberg-like efficiency, using darkness and suggestion with the score to create effects echoing War Of The Worlds and Minority Report. There are some genuine shocks here, aided by camerawork that’s never less than glossy. But behind the populist push for box-office success beats the heart of an outlaw. 

Far from any questionable romantic sub-plot, it’s pretty much a solo performance from Smith throughout- a challenge he takes to with impressive conviction and his trademark charisma. The writers (adapting the screenplay from Richard Matheson’s novel) don’t feel the need to spoon-feed us key information in the first ten minutes, and as such we have some utterly dumbfounding revalatory moments peppered across the plot.

There’s also a distinct and welcome lack of naff I-Robot commercialism. Though the two films share some core themes and CGI character shortcomings, Legend is a more intelligent, honest and ultimately more satisfying experience.

The disadvantages of its mainstream leanings do find their way to the shiny surface occasionally. The final act is muddied with schmalzy, uber-American religious overtones and the supporting characters introduced at this stage are one-dimensional and uninteresting. The lonely man (with obligatory ‘tough-but-sensitive guy’ pondering) scenario does wear thin after a while, but when others do eventually show up we deserve better. And unless you’re one of those misguided people who considers pets to have the same emotional capacity as their human owners, the ambitiously cliched use of a dog as Neville’s best friend doesn’t work. The ‘last man on Earth’ obviously needs a sparring partner or we’ll be bored very quickly, but his canine buddy just doesn’t cut it as a supporting artiste. 

That said, Legend does deliver several well executed edge-of-the-seat moments, outshining most offerings from the ‘horror’ genre this year. Emma Thompson cameos in an ominous opening sequence as Alice Crippen, the scientist behind the ill-fated cancer cure, but sadly and wastefully is never seen again. The numerous well-placed flashbacks to the beginning of the whole nightmare are intense, incisive nuggets of drama, and not simply a cheap way of slapping us with details.      

It’s worth considering, though, what kind of film this could have been if a ‘more intellectual’ or ‘less attractive’ leading man like Paul Giamatti or Adrien Brody had been chosen ahead of Big Willy. Though Smith is likeable and can carry most films of varying quality with apparent ease, the package as it stands stirs up feelings last explored watching Michael Bay’s The Island: a nifty idea rooted in cutting edge social debate, horribly polluted with the dumb-ass paintbrush of the modern blockbuster.

But in ticking so many wonderful boxes, there’s a chance Legend might be the film to bridge the gap between these two schools of thought. Thankfully Francis Lawrence’s direction steers proceedings well clear of The Island‘s heights of disasterand it remains sexy yet thought-provoking viewing.           

THE CRUNCH

4 / 5  sizzling anaemic sun-bashers           

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