Looking less like he’s trying to save the planet than like he’s fighting off a really bad hangover, Vin Diesel punches, shoots but ultimately dozes his way through the sloppy sci-fi actioner “Babylon A.D.” A noisier, costlier version of “Children of Men,” yet lacking that film’s social-political significance and jaw-dropping direction, scribe-helmer Mathieu Kassovitz’s heftiest production to date may also be his least successful effort to breach Hollywood’s walls as a high-budget filmmaker. Released in France before it opens Aug. 29 Stateside in a version trimmed by about 10 minutes, “Babylon” will require plenty of prayers to reach B.O. paradise.
Adapted from French writer Maurice G. Dantec’s 700-plus-page “Babylon Babies,” pic strips the book of its weightier material — which includes an analysis of post-Soviet conflict strategy and a philosophical take on cybernetic bio-engineering — and leaves only the threadbare plot.
After a (literally) eye-catching sequence that shows early signs of the CGI action to come, pic flashes back a week earlier to war-rattled “New Serbia,” where gun-for-hire Toorop (Diesel) sits out the fighting in a boarded-up apartment. Dressed like a frat boy heading for an early morning class and showing just as much conviction, he barely reacts when a SWAT team busts in to bring him to Gorsky (Gerard Depardieu, sporting an unnecessary prosthetic nose), a Russian mafioso offering a sizeable payoff if Toorop delivers a special package to New York.
The package in question is a mysterious blonde nymph, Aurora (Melanie Thierry), who’s been hidden away in a convent under the protection of Sister Rebecca (Michelle Yeoh). Instead of inquiring why Aurora is worth the hefty price of border smuggling, Toorop shrugs off any serious questioning, unsuccessfully tries to light a cigarette (a gag repeated throughout), and the three set off.
First destination is a train station in Kazakhstan, which occasions one of the pic’s more convincing set pieces when a bomb detonates. A second stop at a Vladivostok nightclub (whose featured entertainment is Ultimate Fighting Championship-style death matches) introduces Toorop’s war buddy Finn (Mark Strong) to the team, and the four barely escape a run-in with some jumpy henchman.
Lengthy middle action sequence has them crossing the Bering Strait on snowmobiles (actually shot in Sweden), and here Kassovitz revisits the kinds of snow-filled scenes that marked his French suspenser “The Crimson Rivers.” Yet as with most of this pic’s fighting and effects, the reliance on extreme closeups, frenzied handheld camerawork and rapid editing leaves little room to enjoy the breathtaking views, let alone fully grasp Toorop’s heroic abilities.
When they finally reach New York — which, in this futuristic version, has a few more skyscrapers and a lot more electronic billboards — they prepare to hand Aurora over to the pale Neolite Priestess (Charlotte Rampling, convincing but short-lived), who heads up the powerful sect/corporation that commanded the transaction. But, as previewed by the pic’s initial flash-forward, the exchange does not go according to plan.
Comparisons to “The Fifth Element” — another French-produced and -helmed blockbuster featuring a bankable Hollywood actor — are likely, and both films suffer from the same lightweight characterization and misfired attempts to render a future society both credible and meaningful.
Whereas Kassovitz’s earlier features, from his breakout “La Haine” to his last U.S. effort, “Gothika,” revealed a strong sense of style and directorial wit, such qualities seem absent from “Babylon A.D.,” which takes itself far too seriously yet fails to deliver its muddled message.
Fans of “Pitch Black” hoping Diesel would reprise the stone-faced Richard Riddick role here will be disappointed, and he seems to be half-smirking through much of the film’s risible dialogue (co-written by Gallic scriber Eric Besnard). Yeoh and promising young thesp Thierry manage to extract a few bits of emotion, mostly when they’re not talking.
While the novel is set in 2013, the film does not specify its time period, although the production design by Sonja Klaus and Paul Cross feels “near-future.” Darkish lensing by longtime Luc Besson collaborator Thierry Arbogast befits the film’s somber tone, but doesn’t make the action, which includes stunts by parkour founder David Belle, easy to follow. For all its continent-hopping, pic was largely shot at Prague’s Barrandov Studio.
Print viewed in Paris ran 100 minutes, while U.S. version purportedly runs 90 minutes.