A lot of movies these days pay tribute to cheesy ‘80s exploitation flicks. Legion actually is one, though it was shot in 2008 and has computer effects (which aren’t much more convincing than what filmmakers had to work with in the ‘80s). It’s essentially John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 meets The Prophecy, with a side order of Maximum Overdrive (most of the film unfolds in and around a greasy spoon in the middle of the desert). Its creaky script (which stops dead every so often so that a pair of characters can emote at each other) puts a pretty low ceiling on how much better the movie could’ve been, but it could’ve been worse. It’s highly forgettable but reasonably Netflixable.
Paul Bettany, in the first of his two films with first-time director Scott Stewart this year (next up: Priest, in August), plays an angel named Michael who rebels against God’s plan to wipe us all out. Michael de-wings himself, arms himself to the teeth, and heads off in search of Charlie the diner waitress (Adrianne Palicki), whose unborn child is the future of mankind. Michael holes up in the diner with a ragtag assemblage who just happen to be there, including the joint’s owner (Dennis Quaid), his son (Lucas Black), the cook (Charles S. Dutton), a well-to-do family waiting for their Beemer to be fixed (Kate Walsh, Jon Tenney and Willa Holland), and an estranged dad (Tyrese Gibson) who, fortunately, is packing heat.
From there, it’s a stand-off against creepy possessed people, who can walk on ceilings and sport sharklike teeth. I knew I was going to kinda like this movie when Dennis Quaid, having already endured an attack by a sharp-fanged old lady, pointed a shotgun at Paul Bettany and hollered “Lemme see your teeth! TEETH!” and Bettany sort of sighed and displayed his perfectly normal angelic choppers. Legion is full of borderline stupid (sometimes not so borderline) moments like that. The scene that finally totally won me over: a heartfelt scene between Michael and Quaid’s unfortunately named son, who’s having a crisis of doubt; Michael lists all the good things the goofily monikered kid has done, and finishes with a somber “You, Jeep. You’re the reason I have faith.” Paul Bettany already has an Oscar from me for saying that line without falling down laughing.
The rest of us are free to yuk it up. I didn’t feel that my enjoyment of Legion was ironic or mean, or on a Mystery Science Theater 3000 level. The movie takes its absurdity very very seriously, but somehow it retains the vibe of the sort of flick you used to encounter in the video store in a lurid, battered clamshell case. I loved watching Paul Bettany stomp around grimly with a variety of serious weaponry; I knew melodrama in 2010 wouldn’t get much finer than a tearful Kate Walsh snarling at her bratty teen daughter, “It’s all your fault we’re here! I was happy in my home”; I cackled when the film began and ended with the same idiotically portentous line of narration. Most of all, I cherished the idea that, if God were to get sick of us all and decide to pull the plug, he’d do it with an army of possessed people easily put down with bullets and stymied by a few boarded-up diner windows. And I’m comforted that they still do make movies like they did back in the ‘80s.