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Legend (1986)::rating::2.5::rating::2.5

Two battles rage throughout Ridley Scott’s Legend:  On one front, the forces of purity duke it out with the belching, gurgling minions of evil.  Meanwhile, on a macro level, the entire film is an epic showdown between the brilliant and the blah.  Visually, Scott’s bizarre, audacious fantasy is a wondrous achievement.  Jaw-dropping makeup and prosthetics deliver an army of goblins, sprites, demons, and trolls.  Practical effects supply an innocent wonder that could never be found in modern CGI.  Even Tangerine Dream’s New Age score offers a strange, unexpected beauty.  Too bad, then, that Scott (working with fantasy writer William Hjortsberg) never lets the storytelling shift out of a lower gear.  Narratively, this is a derivative, shambling misfire.

The story resembles a hastily assembled mismash of Star WarsExcalibur, Tolkien, and Grimm’s Fairy Tales.  In Scott’s fantasy world, the Lord of Darkness (an unrecognizable Tim Curry) plots to blanket the world in, um…you know, darkness.  To achieve this dastardly plan, Darkness will need the horn of a unicorn.  You see, unicorns are the living embodiment of everything good and decent in the world.  Mutilate them, and the land transforms into a blighted, cheerless tundra.

Thankfully, the unis have Jack (Tom Cruise) to protect them.  I’ll be honest:  I’m not sure about Jack’s specific role for the good guys.  Is he a ranger?  A bard?  A fighter?  I mean, he has to be a hero, with that flowing Fabio hairdo, Mowgli loincloth, and smoldering Tiger Beat gaze.  Right?  Anyway, ol’ Jack is smitten with Lili (Mia Sara, in her debut).  She’s a striking young princess, with a dangerous, ill-fated combination of dewey naivete and saucy mischief.

Jack and Lili frolic through the forest, where they spot two unicorn.  Despite his pleading, she ventures closer, hoping to touch these magical creatures.  The beasts spook and race into the forest.  Flummoxed, Jack races after them, but–you guessed it!–the servants of Darkness are waiting.  They whisk one of the unicorns away, thus setting the evil plan in motion.

With that, Jack unites with a lovable group of fantastical ragamuffins who fall somewhere between The Hobbit and Jim Henson’s workshop.  These include: Honeythorn Gump (David Bennett), a childlike elf who acts as guardian of the forest; Screwball (Billy Barty) and Brown Tom (Cork Hubbert), two rascally dwarves; finally, the wisp Oona (Annabelle Lanyon), who functions as a second-string Tinkerbell.

Those plucky heroes plunge into a by-the-numbers adventure flick, replete with generic vignettes and predictable action scenes.  Everything about Legend is superficial.  Jack’s character isn’t properly developed, nor is his chemistry with Lili.  We also know little about the supporting players, except their names and which team they’re on.  Most of this movie lives in the moment, hurtling at breakneck speed.  To enjoy any of it, you must check your brain at the opening credits and try to keep pace.  About forty more minutes of script would’ve served this movie well.  As is, Legend feels paltry and without stakes.

(At this point, let me offer full disclosure:  For this review, I’m screening the original theatrical cut, which Scott pared down to a meager 89 minutes.  He feared American audiences couldn’t digest a richer, fuller story–and it shows.  A director’s cut has since surfaced, and many reviews have noted its superiority.  In my opinion, it’s only a slightly better version, with some of the same flaws.  Go ahead and add a half-star, if you want.  For an in-depth discussion of that film, and what it adds, be sure and check out our podcast on the subject.)

The performances are pretty much on par with the subject matter.  Cruise has little to do here, except to look wild and fanatical.  He does that very well.  Sara is a fine actress, but most of her role nothing is more than a trope.  Most disappointing of all is Curry, who is lost in the role of Darkness.  Curry was meant to play the devil like Olivier was meant for Hamlet, but the writing lets him down.  So does the makeup:  One of the most recognizable character actors in modern cinema gets lost behind a mountain of makeup and stilted lifts.  Legend should’ve had a villain for the ages, but they have no idea what do with him.

In fact, this entire film is a testament to what might’ve been.  The technical mastery of Legend is as strong as any film of its era.  Many scenes are breathtaking to behold.  If the story had been on that level, I’d be scoring this as an all-time classic.  As is, Legend is nothing more than a gorgeous waste of time.

89 min.  PG.  On demand.


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