September 17, 2015
Legend (theatrical version) – US, 1985
Made in 1985, yet released just one month before Tony Scott’s Top Gun, it’s hard to think of Ridley Scott’s Legend as a Tom Cruise film. In fact, the two films must have made quite an interesting contrast for those who saw them in the theater. Top Gun allowed Cruise to play brash and cocky, the kind of guy who would make enemies and not care that he was doing so. Replace the flight jacket with a red leather one and he could have been playing an updated version of James Dean’s character in Rebel without a Cause. Cruise’s role in Legend is nothing like Maverick. In Legend, he plays Jack – and I’m quoting from the back of the DVD here – a “mystical forest dweller, chosen by fate to undertake a heroic quest.” Sound familiar? To me, the role seemed like an amalgamation of several beloved characters: Tarzan, Puck from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Luke Skywalker, and Bilbo Baggins. (There’s even a point at which Cruise’s character has to solve a riddle to survive the wrath of an angry child fairy.) Viewers who find the idea of such a mix hard to imagine are in for an even bigger shock.
Legend was written by William Hjortsberg, whose had previously only written two screenplays, one the pilot for a Roger Corman television show called The Georgia Peaches, and the other 1977’s Thunder and Lightning, starring David Carridine. His only writing credit since Legend has been Mickey Rourke’s Angel Heart. The first two are gritty films about bootlegging and attempted extortion. Legend couldn’t be more different. Hjortsberg sets his characters in a magical world that is protected by two unicorns and imperiled by an evil being known as Darkness, played campily by Tim Curry. Darkness desires to turn the skies eternally dark by eliminating day all together, but to do this he must destroy the unicorns and take possession of their horns. Apparently, the horns allow whoever has them – other than the unicorn themselves, of course - to yield enormous power, The unicorn are also weakened if they are touched by a human, which makes you wonder why one would go close to one in the first place.
Darkness’s plan is revealed in the very first scene, and I can only think of two possible explanations for this. Hjortsberg may have intended it to be foreshadowing the utter campiness that is to follow, or it may have just been lazy writing. Based on what follows, I’m inclined to give Hjortsberg the benefit of the doubt here. However, if that is what he indeed intended, he did Cruise a disservice, for Jack, as well as the film’s other human character, Princess Lili (Mia Sara), do not appear to be in on the joke. While other characters talk in what I’d describe as fractured Shakespearean English, Jack and Lili are given dialogue intended to be romantic and fantastical, yet without a backstory, which Hjortsberg neglected to include, their dialogue comes across as silly instead of heartfelt, and Cruise and Sara are never able to establish any real sense of chemistry.
As the film progresses, we get a cacophony of cinematic oddities – villains who telegraph their moves before they do them, goblins attempting humor, Hobbit-like creatures who apparently have never met a serious moment that they didn’t respond to completely inappropriately, and a villain who breaks into dance in one of the weirdest attempts at seduction I have seen in some time. This would be fine if the humor came across as either genuine for the moment or befitting of the genre. However, there were times in the film when I wondered what the film was trying to be. To me, too many of the jokes simply fell flat, and the faux Shakespearean prose never really fit the characters or the moment. For Shakespearean English to work, it should feel natural and be universal to all characters. Here it isn’t, and when a switch in language occurs, it can feel jarring.
The more I think about the film, the more I’m convinced that nothing in it is supposed to be taken seriously, that it is all one big joke that perhaps it is best for viewers to know is being played on them prior to watching the film. Perhaps the film is also intended as a parody of both Shakespearean comedies and science fiction films of the 1970’s and 1980’s. So be it. However, by mixing drama and camp together in this way, what has been created is neither interesting as parody nor involving as adventure. It’s one of those films that just sits there asking for the audience to love it, but not giving them any reason to other than the good intentions of the writer and director and the thankless energy of its cast. Sometimes this is enough. Here, it just isn’t.