I am a sucker for an action movie. I mean, I REALLY like action movies. Every guy likes action movies. “Live Free or Die Hard,” “Transformers,” and “300” were all huge hits this summer, not to mention “The Bourne Ultimatum.” All four of those movies, by the way, made it into my top 15 of the year. But my love of action movies goes even deeper than the average American male. (Somewhere some snooty French dude is sipping a vanilla laced, watered down coffee and making a witty remark about how ridiculous Americans are.) I really liked “Shooter,” a movie that at best elicited a halfhearted “Eh” from most movie critics. I am the only person in the world who thought “Ghost Rider” wasn’t that bad, including Nicholas Cage who apparently wept during the screening of this film. I own a copy of “The Island” and I actually do not regret purchasing it. Basically, if it has a half interesting plot, some explosions and/or firefighting, and actors who can sort of make me believe they are in fact paid, professional actors, I will probably enjoy it on some level.
Seldom, however, do I see a true, certifiable action movie that is worthy of not only a top notch review, but also award consideration. Very rarely has an action film come along that is riveting in its drama and its character development in addition to the obligatory action sequences. “I Am Legend” is that film.
The story, based on a Richard Matheson novella of the same title, has been modernized and set in New York City, circa 2012. A virus that initiated as a cure for cancer has mutated and turned the world’s population (those who lived through the outbreak) into a species of cave dwelling zombies. Matheson’s work portrayed the creatures as vampires but the film stops short of this declaration, though they exhibit classic vampire like characteristics. Dr. Robert Neville (Will Smith), at one time the world’s best hope for survival, is, for all intents and purposes, the last man on earth. He is isolated on Manhattan Island with only his dog and the infected for company. Neville spends his days hunting deer in the streets, alphabetically working his way through every DVD in the electronic store, and meticulously searching for a cure for the virus. At night, however, he locks metal shutters on every door and window and hunkers down with Sam (the dog) as the infected roam the night.
As Neville comes closer and closer to a cure, he also comes closer and closer to the edge. He experiences breaks from reality and flashes back to memories of the night his family died while trying to flee the island. He is driven to the point of breaking by his desire, his need to cure the virus. During an uncharacteristic moment of sloppiness he comes within an inch of his life at the hands of the infected, and loses his companion in the process. The loss nearly pushes him to assisted suicide, so to speak, before he is pulled from the brink of death by a pair of survivors. The arrival of survivors, the first he has seen in 3 years, is a shock to Neville and he has a difficult time adjusting to his new found allies. During a particularly dramatic scene, Neville screams at Anna about the absence of God, as she attempts to talk him into leaving with her for a supposed safe haven in Vermont. The argument ends abruptly, however, when the house is stormed by the infected who have finally traced Neville back to his lair.
While making what will be his last stand, Neville discovers he has finally found the cure he devoted his life to. The final confrontation culminates in Neville’s self sacrifice to save Anna and Ethan, but only after passing on the cure and rediscovering his faith. It is a fairly poignant moment that could have been that much more with a little more development. The point still hits home, however and we are allowed to catch a brief glimpse of the colony Neville’s work made possible.
There are elements of “Legend” that are cliché. Plenty of films have focused on viral outbreaks and zombie filled streets. This film could have easily slipped into the usual post-apocalyptic world that so many of its predecessors have created before it. But the stroke of genius here is that the infected and the fight against them take a back seat to the isolation, the lonely and haunting world in which Neville finds himself. What would you do if you were the only person on earth? What measures would you take to stay sane? Neville sets up mannequins at his usual visits. He watches Tivoed recordings of “Good Morning America.” He talks to and treats Sam like a child, methodically bathing her and forcing her to eat her vegetables. In effect, he does anything that seems “normal” in an effort to remain normal.
Will Smith delivers what is without question the best performance of his spectacular career. In the minds of many, Smith has long been a summer blockbuster kind of actor: a guy who could deliver big money for entertaining yet less than thought provoking films that are never talked about during award season. (See: “Men in Black” and “Independence Day.”) This role could and should push him into the very rare category of actors who can earn both big money and golden statues. It takes a very, VERY talented and versatile actor to stand alone on the screen for the majority of a film and not become annoying or boring. Tom Hanks was nominated for an Oscar for doing just this in “Castaway” though quite frankly, I and many other were both annoyed and bored by Hanks. Smith strikes the perfect chord between vulnerability and strength, both bordering on the breaking point and remaining steadfast in his quest. He is less a flawed hero and more a broken one, a man who expects to succeed, to be the hero he knows the world needs him to be, and yet his loss and his loneliness weighs on him heavily. Smith plays the role perfectly and it is hard to imagine many other actors who could have done the job as effectively.
The direction of Francis Lawrence deserves mention as well. His work to avoid falling into the traps of making an average zombie movie is quite apparent throughout, to the point that I felt he was almost reluctant to move away from Neville’s story of solidarity and into his fight with the infected. It is a social commentary as much as it is an action movie. There are several brilliantly shot scenes, none so powerful as the moment in which Neville must put down his only companion after she is infected. “Old Yeller” has nothing on this scene which is almost too tough to watch for a dog lover like myself. Nonetheless, it firmly drives home the point once more that Neville is completely and utterly alone and further illustrates his brokenness. If I had to complain, I would point out that I was unimpressed by the CGI infected. They are less than inspired and painfully brought back memories of Mr. Hyde in “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.” (*Shutter*) I do believe, however, this may have been done in an effort to avoid an “R” rating. A more intense creature would have very likely ensured this. In addition, the film runs short at 100 minutes and there is clearly room for further development. I hope to see a “Director’s Cut” on DVD before too long.
I am in no way insinuating that “Legend” will receive any mention come Oscar season. Film critics have proven that they take themselves far too seriously to truly consider the merits of a comedy or action movie, no matter how deserving they might be. I am insinuating, however, that “Legend” and Smith in particular deserve consideration, if not nomination when the Academy get together in a few months. It is, without question, the best film I have seen this year and far more significant than the average action film.