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“Not if you were the last man on earth …” Well, maybe if you were Will Smith… The latest adaptation of the Richard Matheson novel, I Am Legend, finds our Fresh Prince-turned-Action-Hero-turned-Serious-Thespian back to form in Manly Man mode with some added depth held over from his time in the Oscar nominee pool. It’s a surprisingly effective combination and a great showcase for Smith. 

Previously incarnated in 1964 as The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price and the Charlton Heston epic 1971’s The Omega Man, director Francis Lawrence (- who helmed the underrated Constantine {2005}) is in charge of a production with a budget far beyond its predecessors. I Am Legend opens with a newscast, heralding a “miracle cure” a reengineered measles virus which ostensibly cures cancer. Flash forward three years later and we see familiar images of New York streets and cityscapes littered with abandoned vehicles and choked with overgrown wilderness. We meet Robert Neville, careening through major Manhattan thoroughfares in a red Mustang (- The Shelby clearly the motor of choice in manly man films this year, e.g.: The Bucket List - coming soon). Neville is on the hunt streaking up through the Flatiron District and Park Avenue and into Times Square after a herd of deer. Stalking his prey in fields of weeds chest high with his trusty German shepherd by his side, Neville is about to fire at his prey when a much larger, furrier predator beats him to it. In an interesting bit of foreshadowing, we’re shown how quickly hunter can turn into the hunted as all manner of beasts – not all on four legs – have made Manhattan truly a concrete jungle. 

Neville returns to a surreally sedate life in his townhouse on Washington Square complete with stocked fridge, original artwork courtesy of some abandoned museums gracing the walls, videotaped news on the telly, dinner with his veggie-hating pup, and Bob Marley on the stereo. Nothing appears to be wrong until the alarm on Neville’s wristwatch goes off and suddenly the townhouse is converted into an armoured fortress with lockdown at dusk. The bathtub where he had earlier been scrubbing Sam the pooch now serves as a bed for the two huddled close together, a rifle serving as security blanket against the ghostly moans and screams of whatever is outside. Neville dreams of the day everything went wrong, when the virus so proudly crowed had mutated and gone airborne. Neville hustles to evacuate his wife and daughter before the entire city is quarantined. Neville is one of the doctors who worked on the virus. “I could fix this” “This is ground zero, this is my site”, he explains to his incredulous wife, as they wrestle through the panic of a city gone mad with fear. He says a last goodbye to his family, putting them on a helicopter and off Manhattan Island.  

Three years after that day, Neville has created an enforced normalcy in order to cope and indeed to “fix this.” He and the loyal Sam both work out daily on treadmills (- cue shirtless Will Smith scene), chatting with mannequins he’s set up at his favourite stops as he goes about his routine, scavenging for food and supplies in the vacated homes all around him and broadcasting on a ham radio inviting any survivors to meet him at the South Street Seaport. All this is a sideline to Neville’s continuing work to find a cure for the virus testing different strains, mostly unsuccessfully on rats. After a particularly unsuccessful hunting venture, we get to see what it is that Neville is trying so hard to cure and what he and Sam live so much in fear of. The howls and screams of the night are the bellows of the barely human mutations created by the airborne virus; living only in fear of the light, they are gray, cannibalistic and mostly mindless except for one creature who has taken a particular dislike to Dr. Neville.

This exceptional creature confounds Neville with his retained intellect, playing mind games causing Neville to doubt his already tenuous sanity. Indeed this mutant has control over a vast colony of his own and orchestrates a campaign of terror against the doctor and his brave pup. It is in the midst of one such attack that Neville finally discovers he’s not alone in the world as a young woman and boy rescue him from not only the grip of the monsters, but from the loss of Neville’s grip on reality. 

This is a great performance from Will Smith. As I mentioned earlier, there are all the trappings of his earlier action hero roles like in Bad Boys and I, Robot (- he likes those “I” films, dun’ne?), he is convincing tearing up the streets in the Shelby and later in a converted SUV, wielding automatic rifles, and in the flashback scenes commanding a troop of overzealous soldiers to step back when they threaten his wife. What makes I Am Legend different to Smith’s other work is the sensitivity with which he portrays Neville, a man who relives his worst nightmare in his dreams every night and then rises to face a whole new nightmare every day. He has only affection for his dog and the drive of his work to keep him going. He is not an invincible superhero, and when life deals him yet another horrible blow, his humanity is shattered, and he rejects even the company of the fellow survivors he’s sought for so long. Smith does a wonderful job of relaying Neville first on the autopilot of his daily careful routines, then giving us his painful descent into hopelessness and his eventual reclamation of his faith and purpose. 

There’s a lot of money on the screen and the production values; the harrowing scenes of Manhattan deserted and decaying are truly a wonder (- though I have to admit to growing increasingly bleary-eyed and choleric at the amount of celluloid assaults I’ve had to witness Manhattan endure over the last few years, and apparently continuing with J.J. Abrams' Cloverfield … Why not Poughkeepsie or Darien or HoHoKus?) I can’t imagine the work that went into simply clearing out those heavily progressed areas of the city like Times Square or the South Street Seaport for filming, whether staged in reality or created through CGI, I am Legend shows us the unthinkable and it’s a remarkable feat. Sadly, one of my two complaints about the film is the flip side of the brilliant CGI coin, in my disappointment at way the mutants are rendered. I don’t know if they were supposed to be vampires, zombies or something in between, but whatever they were was scary as heck until they started moving about at super-speed and strength like characters in a video game. Leaping tall SUV’s in a single bound in a great gray blur just left me cold. Take a cue from George Romero, kids, the slow moving zombies - or mutants in this case - are scarier.  

My other kvetch is smaller. I thought the emphatic debate about faith with Anna, the other survivor, having kept hold of her own and trying to convince Neville, to find his, was a bit forced and seemed a little out of place. It was a nice little message, but it just seemed too contrived and Deus Ex Machina in the 11th hour, as it was. Certainly not enough to ruin the film, just a bit laboured and clumsy in what had been pretty effortless emotion up until then.  

I really enjoyed I Am Legend. I thought it was a great balance of action, thrills and a wonderful performance by Will Smith. (-  Don’t even get me started on how much I adored Abby, the preternaturally talented Shepherd that played the brave Sam – Special canine Oscar, please)  Despite its flaws - and they certainly aren’t deal-breakers – I Am Legend is a great time at the movies. 

 

~ Mighty Ganesha

December 14th 2007

 

 

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(Courtesy of  Warner Brothers Pictures)