Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn’t impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there’s I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward. And a good time.
Cultural infamy/Curiosity factor: Between the time I pitched Legion as an I Watched This On Purpose entry and the moment I decided to actually sit down and watch it, I completely forgot what it was about. I mean, I remembered that it was scary, and maybe had something to do with vampires or angels, but I honestly didn’t know what I was in for. What I did remember was seeing that trailer and thinking “That looks kinda awesome, yet potentially horrible. I’m definitely going to see it.”
The Netflix envelope told me this:
In the wake of an apocalypse of major proportions, a motley crew of survivors (including Dennis Quaid, Tyrese Gibson, and Kate Walsh) ekes out a living at an abandoned truck stop in the desert, never suspecting that the pregnant woman walking among them is carrying the Messiah.
All righty, that didn’t sound like it was worth watching, so I went to check out the trailer again. Join me, won’t you?
Now I remember—the creepy old lady who climbs up the diner ceiling like a spider! That’s why I wanted to see Legion. And then Tasha came back from the press screening and told me that the creepy old spider-lady and the stretchy-faced ice-cream man from the trailer were barely even in Legion, and that there was a whole lot of speechifyin’ when there should’ve been creepy possessed people. She gave the movie a D-minus in her A.V. Club review (a.k.a. “the gentleman’s F”), calling it “boring,” which is of course the last thing a movie about apocalyptic angels and a murderous deity should be. (Call me crazy, but who wants to hear angels talk when you can watch them possess humans in order to murder other humans?) Other critics weren’t much kinder: Legion has a 19 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 32 on Metacritic, with even the top review (from Variety) calling it both hokey and muddled.
But I persisted, because there are some fine actors in this movie (Dennis Quaid, Friday Night Lights’ Adrianne Palicki) and because I was pretty positive that at least 10 percent of Legion would feature some crazy shit.
The viewing experience: Okay, so I was secretly hoping for a little more than 10 percent of a 100-minute horror movie to be at least semi-horrific. But Legion mostly fails because it wants to be so much more than it is, and it scrambles around trying to cram lots of meaningful exchanges in where knife fights belong. Message to director Scott Stewart: Most of the time, you can’t have it both ways. If you try to be smart and fail, you’re going to piss everybody off—the people who just want some demons to fuck shit up and the people who want something a little more thoughtful. That said, Legion isn’t a complete waste of time, just an almost complete waste of time.
It begins, as all the great ones do, with a really unnatural-sounding voiceover courtesy of Palicki. (Friday Night Lights fans know her as Tyra, breaker of Landry’s heart.) In one of many homages to the Terminator movies, she blah blahs a bit about the apocalypse, then reveals that God wanted to exterminate humankind because He was “tired of all the bullshit.” Yeah! God is tired of bullshit, just like us! Wipe it clean!
So a tattooed angel lands in Los Angeles on a rainy night (again echoing The Terminator a bit), and he proceeds to immediately cut off his own wings. This is a fairly badass thing to do, and it’s the only badass thing that will happen for the first 20 minutes of Legion. After stitching himself up, the angel visits an armory and loads himself up with dozens of automatic rifles. This, to me anyway, holds shitloads of promise: An angel descends from heaven, renounces his angelhood, and arms himself to the teeth. And he murders a possessed cop and steals a cop car.
And then Legion hits the brakes, hard, in order to introduce the audience to the abovementioned “motley crew” that converges on a diner in the middle of nowhere. Name of the diner: Paradise Falls. (METAPHOR!) We’ve got the angry pregnant girl (Palicki), the rube owner (Dennis Quaid), his rube-ier son (Lucas Black), the one-handed cook (Charles Dutton), and passing-through big-city folks Tyrese Gibson and some people who get killed off and that you wouldn’t recognize anyway. It takes forever to get us where we need to be with these characters—the movie should’ve done it in half the time and cut tons of extraneous bullshit, like a scene in which we learn that Tyrese is on his way to L.A. for a custody hearing. Who cares? Certainly not Tyrese, who’s happier just to play a two-dimensional thug who calls people “white boy” for no apparent reason. (It turns out, we learn in another “meaningful” scene, that he’s never even used his gun! He’s only waved it around for show!)
Anyway, things start to heat up, finally, when that kindly old lady enters the diner. There’s something slightly off about her from the start—she orders a rare steak and a glass of water—and then she goes off the deep end, telling Palicki that her baby is going to burn. We assume it’s because the boy will be a bastard, but really it’s because this old lady is 100 percent possessed, presumably (or so the audience is meant to think at this point) by Satan. So Grandma flips out and shows her pointy teeth and climbs across the ceiling of the diner like a spider, and if there were a movie that was 90 minutes of senior citizens turning into spider-people and terrorizing small-town diners, I would buy it on Blu-ray and watch all the special features.
Dennis Quaid, for his part, does a fine job of looking confused and delivering lines in a bad Southern accent, including these two gems: “Percy, why don’t you check out that old radio of yours, see if there’s any news about the TV” and “I can’t believe she was still standing there after Percy hit her with ’at fryin’ pan.” Tyrese, for his part, gets this one half-funny shot in before things get too serious: “I don’t care how long she been dead. The bitch walked on the ceiling!”
After what seems like an eternity, our main characters meet up—the angel from the beginning, whom we learn is Michael, comes to the diner and lets everybody know that Palicki’s unborn baby is the only hope humanity has left. (“I don’t even own a car!” she says.) Before he can bore us all to death with the particulars, the movie delivers a halfway decent fight scene, in which our heroes battle an ice-cream man who sorta turns into a spider and has a giant detached jaw. It’s actually creepy enough to warrant mention, though it’s kinda wasted on this movie. It should be in that other movie, the one I made up starring the feral senior-citizen spider-people.
Anyway, after giving guns to all the patrons and leading a little shooting spree—an awfully easy shooting spree, it turns out—Michael fills us in on what’s really up. The devil isn’t possessing people—it’s God! The good God! The Christian God! He’s fed up with humanity, and just like with the flood that spared Noah and some giraffes, he’s about to wipe us all out. Except instead of something pleasant, like just drowning everybody on the planet, he’s sent angels to infect weak-willed humans who will then grow sharp teeth and murder everybody else. That’s some Old Testament shit, dawg! Anyway, here’s the explanation, and a bit about why Michael is going to defy God. Check out Dutton’s hook-hand! It’s in every scene he’s in!
And it goes on like that, with lots of people talking and not nearly enough possessed freaks running around trying to converge on our diner. Palicki gives an impassioned monologue about how she considered an abortion, basically telling the audience: “Don’t have an abortion! What if your child is the Messiah?!” (There’s a pretty good chance, right?)
There’s one more halfway-decent fight scene before the big finish. This one includes a little kid used as bait to lure the good guys out of the diner, and of course it turns out that the little kid is possessed, too. (But he looks like a moppet!) I would like to cast this little kid in the movie I’m currently writing, about feral senior citizens who turn into zombie spiders and ally themselves with super-skinny ice-cream men with detachable jaws. Anyway, here he is attacking Palicki and talking kinda creepy:
Palicki’s baby is eventually born, and it’s a terrifically fast and easy delivery. That’s a good thing, since a big noise outside signals that something is happening. (“He’s coming,” says the angel Michael, but doesn’t elaborate.) We know from a useless flashback that “he” is the angel Gabriel, played by Keamy from Lost. His bold arrival raises the question “Why send all of humanity to kill this baby when badass Gabriel was on his way anyway?”
Gabriel and Michael fight, blah blah blah—angel-mace vs. automatic rifle. The angel-mace wins, but it really doesn’t, because something something Michael really did the right thing and his spirit is something something maybe delivered into Palicki’s hick boyfriend, who’s barely in the movie anyway, but who gets some magical tattoos at the end. The miracle baby survives a car crash at 100 mph, because why not, and then there’s another slow-mo one-on-one fight with nothing memorable about it other than, hey, it’s Keamy from Lost. For those keeping track, that’s a movie that started with an angel at an armory; went into a scene in which a 75-year-old woman eats a maggot-ridden steak, climbs a ceiling, and tries to bite everybody; and ends up with some sort of weak-ass sword-fight between angels. Way to lose your way, Legion.
I’ll give them credit for this exchange in one of the last fights, which errs on the side of brevity instead of the movie’s usual long-winded speeches. You’re going to expect a long answer, but you’ll get a short one:
Then, when all the money for dialogue had been spent, we hear this exchange:
Angel Michael: “You are the true protector, you always have been.”
Newly Minted Angel Hick Son: “Will we ever see you again?”
And then the movie has the audacity to end with some of the same voiceover lines it began with, and Palicki and Newly Minted Angel Hick Son drive off with a carload of weapons, setting up a sequel that will hopefully never happen. (Unless it’s a spin-off starring the possessed kid, the feral old lady, and the ice-cream man. I’ll see the shit out of that.)
How much of the experience wasn’t a total waste of time? I’m gonna stick with 10 percent. There’s some fun/freaky stuff in Legion, but it’s surrounded by a lot of dry spells, speeches, and sub-par story. It’s too bad, because there’s a fun/scary movie to be had from the idea, but this ain’t it.