'Legion'

Dramatically muddled but surprisingly involving Bible-themed fantasy thriller.

Heavily armed archangels, flesh-chomping demons, humongous insect hordes and other unsettling signs of the apocalypse are on graphic, garish display in “Legion,” a dramatically muddled but surprisingly involving Bible-themed fantasy thriller that imagines Armageddon in a dingy roadside diner, a la “The Prophecy” meets “The Petrified Forest.” Even when the blood-and-thunder hokiness of the over-the-top plot tilts perilously close to absurdity, the admirably straight-faced performances by well-cast lead players provide just enough counterbalance to sustain aud curiosity and sympathy. Expect strong (if not quite miraculous) opening-weekend biz, followed by extended afterlife on homevid and cable.

First-time feature helmer Scott Stewart, co-founder of f/x company the Orphanage, begins with a bang — several bangs, actually — in a prologue that vaguely recalls the opening of James Cameron’s original “Terminator.” No less a luminary than the archangel Michael (Paul Bettany) plops down into a dank Los Angeles alley and, after painfully shedding his wings and loading up with automatic weapons, commandeers a cop car for a race against time.

Once he reaches a desert cafe portentously named Paradise Falls, the newly wingless wonder finds a besieged group of characters: Bob Hanson (Dennis Quaid), the diner’s cynically cranky owner; Percy (Charles S. Dutton), his more easygoing partner; Charlie (Adrianne Palicki), a very attractive, very pregnant waitress; Jeep (Lucas Black), Bob’s mechanic son; Kyle (Tyrese Gibson), a stranger who’s taken a wrong turn off the highway; and suburban couple Howard (Jon Tenney) and Sandra (Kate Walsh) and their sarcastic daughter, Audrey (Willa Holland).

Long before Michael arrives, the folks at the diner are seriously spooked out by dead telephones, dark clouds of insects and a seemingly sweet little old lady who, after chewing on a rare steak, sinks her teeth into someone’s neck. According to Michael, however, the worst is yet to come: God has tired of mankind’s sinfully destructive ways, and has set into motion the Final Days.

The good news is, Michael — certain that God’s wrath is nothing more than a temporary snit — has defiantly chosen to save mankind by protecting Charlie’s unborn child. (Sharp-eyed viewers will note that, when Michael first descends to Earth, the date is specified as Dec. 23.) Unfortunately, Michael may be hard-pressed, even with all his heavy artillery, to ward off the various and sundry zombiefied humans pressed into service by Gabriel (Kevin Durand), an archangel who’s very eager to let God’s will be done.

Working from a fanciful script he co-wrote with Peter Schink, helmer Stewart strikes a sometimes effective, sometimes awkward balance between f/x-amped sequences of slam-bang action — the diner is repeatedly attacked by Gabriel’s minions during “Night of the Living Dead”-style onslaughts — and intensely emotional, dialogue-heavy scenes enhanced by handheld camerawork.

Pic cheats more than a bit by refusing to clarify just what Michael and Gabriel can or cannot do — and whether either can truly be destroyed — and there’s an unfortunate hint of silliness to some conversations between the archangels. At one point, you half expect one or the other to blurt out, “God always liked you best!”

Still, there’s a rock-solid sincerity most of the performances. Bettany conveys the right note of stoic selflessness while kicking ass and shooting guns, and Palicki credibly registers all the anxiety and dread you would expect of a mom-to-be who discovers her unborn child might be humanity’s last best hope. Quaid and Black go a bit overboard with their character’s hick accents but make potent impact in key scenes.

Ironically, “Legion” could miss out on attracting some ticketbuyers who might, under different circumstances, be drawn to the pic’s subject matter: churchgoers who flock to religious-themed dramas like “Fireproof.” They’re the ones who’ll be most upset by the abundance of F-bombs in the dialogue, and the very idea that God ever should be second-guessed.

Tech values are largely impressive, though the editing of some fight scenes causes more confusion than excitement.

Legion

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Screen Gems presentation of a Bold Films production. Produced by David Lancaster, Michel Litvak. Executive producers, Gary Michael Walters, Scott Stewart, Jonathan Rothbart. Co-producers, Steve Beswick, Marc Sadeghi. Directed by Scott Stewart. Screenplay, Peter Schink, Stewart.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), John Lindley; editor, Steven Kemper; music, John Frizzell; music supervisor, Chris Douridas; production designer, Jeff Higinbotham; art director, Austin Gorg; set decorator, Gabrielle Petrissans; costume designer, Wendy Partridge; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Darryl L. Frank; assistant director, James Grayford; visual effects supervisor, Joe Bauer; digital visual effects, the Orphanage, Look Effects; special effects coordinator, Randy Moore; stunt coordinator, John Medlen; associate producers, Garrick Dion, Jon Oakes, Peter Schink, Garth Pappas; line producer, Brad Southwick; assistant director, James Grayford; casting, Rick Montgomery. Reviewed at AMC Studio 30, Houston, Jan. 22, 2010. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 104 MIN.

With

Michael - Paul Bettany Jeep Hanson - Lucas Black Kyle Williams - Tyrese Gibson Charlie - Adrianne Palicki Percy - Charles S. Dutton Howard Anderson - Jon Tenney Gabriel - Kevin Durand Audrey Anderson - Willa Holland Sandra Anderson - Kate Walsh Bob Hanson - Dennis Quaid Gladys Foster - Jeanette Miller Ice Cream Man - Doug Jones

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