I Am Legend (Warner Bros., PG-13)

film_legend_sm.jpgThe battles with the mutants are always sudden and frenzied, scenes where Smith again proves what a convincing action star he is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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It’s no easy task to make an adventure movie focusing on a single character. Robert Zemeckis pulled off the feat with Tom Hanks in 2000’s Cast Away, a realistic portrayal of a man stranded on a remote island after a plane crash. And now director Francis Lawrence (who helmed Constantine and a bunch of music videos) gives us Will Smith as scientist Robert Neville, the lone survivor of a devastating virus that has wiped out mankind. Or most of it, anyway. Neville is stuck in an eerily desolate New York City, driving aimlessly up and down the empty streets (which, as the film effectively shows, have partially returned to nature), sometimes hunting deer (large herds of them race hither and yon through Manhattan), and chatting with his sole companion—his trusty pet dog Sam. Every day at the same time, he broadcasts a radio message in hopes of finding other survivors. And even more importantly, Neville—a military virologist—works in his basement lab trying to find a cure for the virus. He’s mysteriously immune, you see, so his blood could hold the answer to the virus’s extreme rabies-like effects on animals. But trapping rodents won’t be enough—Neville will have to catch one of the "Dark Seekers," the name he’s given to the thoroughly nasty mutants who make George Romero’s flesh eaters look like wimps. No easy task, that.

Neville is destined for several encounters, and some are decidedly better than others. The first half of this film (one of several films loosely based on a 1954 Richard Matheson sci-fi novel) is undeniably suspenseful. It sure as heck looks like the real NYC in these scenes, and if so, a good chunk of the budget must’ve been paid to the city to clear everybody out of the key locations. There’s a convincingly unsettling atmosphere that’s undeniably realistic (save, perhaps, for the apparently smoothly functioning utilities—Neville’s able to man his computer and radio daily with no prob). Smith, lean and mean both physically (we see him doing strenuous daily workouts) and, for awhile, mentally, has a great role here, and he seems to revel in it. It takes a pretty grounded, appealing actor to hold our attention when most of the time his only dialogue is either with a dog or himself. And the battles with the mutants are always sudden and frenzied, scenes where Smith again proves what a convincing action star he is. Flashbacks are used effectively to show what Neville was forced to leave behind and the chaos unfolding in New York as the full impact of the virus took hold.

The script by Akiva Goldsman and Mark Protosevich is taut and compelling for the most part. And there are some awesome tracking shots for the visual connoisseur. Trouble comes in the last third or so of the film, when Neville’s behavior during an unexpected encounter rings false. You’d be forgiven for asking, "Would I act that way in that situation?" A scene where Neville imitates lines from Shrek (Neville regularly watches DVDs, even making trips to the neighborhood video store to maintain some façade of normalcy) goes on too long and becomes cloying. Most tiresome of all, a religious element is introduced that falls flat. As The Mist proved recently, bringing God into a horror or sci-fi film is a risky proposition unless handled just right, and the filmmakers don’t do that here. In subsequent scenes, a good deal of the tension that’s built up quickly evaporates. But there’s still enough riveting entertainment in I Am Legend to recommend this film. For its provocative premise and that mesmerizing first half, Legend earns a conditional thumbs up. | Kevin Renick

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