Even if it never finds an audience outside L.A., someone ought to write a book called When Dull Films Happen To Clever Production Designers. It would probably help console Babylon A.D. designers Paul Cross and Sonja Klaus. Their work helps the film realize a near-future living in the wake of a profound ecological and/or economic collapse. (What's happened is never made clear, but it was obviously unpleasant.) Most of the world lives in a sprawling, Third World black market where a rabbit trapped in a city park qualifies as a feast. The privileged few inhabit desolate urban palaces where any piece of glass can, and usually does, serve as a television screen. Blade Runner and Children Of Men did it before and better, but this world is made to look both lived-in and ickily plausible.
In fact, maybe Cross and Klaus should write that book. They wouldn't be the first involved in the film to badmouth it. French director Mathieu Kassovitz publicly disowned it before its release. (Perhaps he was hoping to engineer a retreat back to the small-scale world that allowed him to make the acclaimed La Haine, and move away from a Hollywood stint that's seen Gothika and this film.) Kassovtiz certainly won't be the last to say unkind things about it.
Babylon A.D. opens in a Russian wasteland that's home to Vin Diesel, a soldier of fortune condemned as a terrorist and unable to return to his U.S. homeland. (For the benefit of our younger readers: Diesel was a minor movie star in the early '00s.) When a Russian fat man (Gérard Depardieu) presses him into service, Diesel is charged with transporting kung-fu action nun Michelle Yeoh and her mysterious young companion (the Mischa Barton-esque Mélanie Thierry) to modern New York. That would count as a difficult task in the sucky middle of the 21st century, even if the trio weren't being pursued by gunmen.
As long it sticks to that chase, Babylon A.D. remains a sub-passable lead-footed action film with neat scenery. When it tries to explain why everyone wants Thierry, in a badly patched together final act—something about artificial intelligence and a virgin birth—it gets into real trouble. Diesel, for one, doesn't do anything to rescue the film, delivering some of the least-inspired line readings this side of an industrial film. Dialogue like "This isn't a game!" doesn't help. And, true, it isn't a game. In games, at least somebody wins.