Monday, January 12, 2015

Movie Review: "Knights Of Badassdom" by David Pretty

For what it's worth, Knights of Badassdom is better than Unicorn City. But that ain't sayin' much.  

After slacker Joe (Ryan Kwanten, I.E. Jason Stackhouse from True Blood) gets dumped by his upwardly-mobile girlfriend Beth (Margarita Levieva) he crawls back to his man-boy pals, which include the independently-wealthy Eric (Steve Zahn) and fellow hanger-on Hung (Peter Dinklage). Collectively, the trio are professional reality-dodgers who live on a constant diet of heavy metal and fantasy games.

Strictly for therapeutic reasons, Eric and Hung get Joe blitzed on weed and bourbon and then haul his unconscious ass off to a local Live Action Role-Playing event. At first he refuses to participate but when his friends harken back to their now-legendary D&D tales of yore, Joe's yen for adventure is piqued. Pretty soon they're rampaging through a make-believe world created by Game Master / old rival Ronnie (Jimmie Simpson) and foam-bashing actors in lime green ape suits with aplomb.

But something's rotten in the Kingdom of Eliphaz. An evil book that Eric acquired on eBay has conjured up a very-real and very-murderous succubi demon which takes the shape of Joe's ex-girlfriend. Allied with a hottie fighter named Gwen (Summer Glau), her protective bodyguard Gunther (Brett Gipson) and Lando (pronounced LON-dough) the Pious (Danny Pudi), the group attempts to set things to rights before all hell breaks loose.

Knights of Badassdom had a very problematic production history and, as such, I'm hesitant to completely Flame-Strike it into oblivion. Director Joe Lynch's ninety-minute minute cut (which was actually a resounding  hit at 2011's Comic-Con) was repo'd away by a new, unsympathetic studio head and chopped down by twenty minutes. And, frankly, it shows. There's barely any narrative flow to the film.

Having watched the movie and then re-watched parts of it in preparation for this review I still have no clue who the millionaire is supposed to be. Is it Eric or is it Hung? I'm gonna go ahead and assume that it's Eric since he tells Joe that "you're always welcome at meine castle". Also, if not for a few disposable lines about eBay, we'd have absolutely no idea where the cursed book came from. But perhaps the film's gravest sin is wasting funnyman Brian Posehn in a pointless cameo at the beginning of the film.

Everything is so disjointed and choppy the film comes across as decidedly amateurish. From one scene to the next day magically transforms into night. There are a few jarring jump cuts that really took me out of the action. The American Graffiti-style "Where are they now?" end titles are poorly written and feel slapped together and tacked on. Sadly, Unicorn City was a slicker package when it comes to nuts n' bolts movie-making.

But Knights of Badassdom proves vastly superior to its mono-horned cousin in the acting department. Even though all of the characters are hideously underwritten, the actors are all impeccably cast and give it their all.  For example, star Ryan Kwanten runs rings around Unicorn City's Devon McGinn as a protagonist. Instead of being a weird, creepy, combative asshole, Ryan's Joe is the perfect sounding board for the audience. He's brash, heroic and has zero tolerance for the overtly-nerdy bullshit going on.

Steve Zahn is equally game. Even though he's obscenely rich and the audience should probably resent that, Eric's unpretentious state of arrested development is oddly charming. His entire existence revolves around his 70's- era scramble van with the fantasy mural airbrushed on the side, RPG-style escapism and just hangin' out with his bros. He delivers the faux-medieval dialogue with panache and, in doing so, manages to make Eric a living, breathing three-dimensional character despite receiving precious little help from the script.

Summer Glau is coolly-understated as Gwen a.k.a. Guinevere the Paladin. Again, her motivation for getting involved in L.A.R.P.-ing is pretty weak but Summer manages to sell the idea that such geeky pursuits have grown on her and she just gets a kick out of it. Given her previous ass-kickery training as River Tam in Firefly her action scenes are impeccable. I just get the vibe that Summer's having fun with the goofy setting and her fellow actors.
Of all the main characters, Peter Dinklage really gets short shift as Hung. Peter does what he can with the wafer-thin material, serving up some classic stoner moments with a spectrum of quirky deliveries and mannerisms. One can only imagine how much more fun the movie could have been if Dinklage had been given something more substantial to work with.

The minor players also deserve a nod. Margarita Levieva is vapid and superficial as Beth but then transforms into an unnervingly slinky, detached and bloodthirsty succubi. Brett Gipson is even more deluded and unhinged then Tom Hanks was in Mazes & Monsters. Community's Danny Pudi lights up of the screen whenever he's around as Lando. Finally Jimmi Simpson steals every scene he's in with his dinner-theater-meets-over-caffeinated-soprano line readings.

Knights of Badassdom is also superior to Unicorn City for its treatment of and its devotees.  Even though the OCD characters, their goofy get-ups and their "Lightning Bolt!!!" shenanigans are soundly parodied here, it's done with an underlying sense of respect. Witness the scene in which Hung dutifully lectures Joe on the basics of foam weapon hit scoring in the game. Team names like "Gnomeland Security" and "The Norse Whisperers" also exhibits some cheeky insight into what tickles the funny bone of the average gamer.

Unfortunately, this devotion also ends up being a major deficit to the film. For some reason, writers Kevin Dreyfus and Mark Wall keep their characters slavishly bound to medieval speak even as the proverbial shit hits the fan. I don't care how out of touch with reality someone is, they're gonna snap back into modern parlance the very second that real blood starts to fly. It's okay if a gonzo character like Gunther persists but when everyone keeps nattering on with "thou's" and "thine's" it gets really annoying and far-fetched really quick.

This is also one of the main reasons why Knights of Badassdom doesn't really work as a horror film or as a comedy. The script might have plenty of salty dialogue, some creatively-slimy gore effects and a pretty cool practical demon for the finale but because it's all so disjointed and goofy that precious few chills and frights are generated. Tonally the movie's all over the map. Some bleak, dark shit goes down at the mid-way point and, as a result, the yuks pretty much dry up. And even though Eric is inadvertently responsible for several deaths this seems to have little to no impact on the film's consequence-free ending. I guess there is a different legal system for the one-percenters. 

I'm hoping that I can revisit the film one day in the form of a director's cut. As for now, Knights of Badassdom is the clear champion in the "Battle of the L.A.R.P. Comedies". But it's not because it's so good, it's because the competition is so lame.

         Tilt: down.

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