Legend (Ultimate Edition) Review
After the critical acclaim for his films The Duellists, Alien and Blade Runner, it would not be fanciful to suggest that, in 1985, Ridley Scott’s career was being looked at by many discerning viewers with great interest and excitement; given that much of early 1980s cinema was in a state of flux, recovering as it was from the twin impact of the growth of adult-orientated 70s films and, of course, Star Wars, Scott looked like being a true auteur for the age. Unfortunately, as with Terry Gilliam and his experiences with Brazil, Scott ran into difficulty with Universal with his original cut of Legend, with the studio politely asking that he take out half an hour, and that, for the American release at least, he replace the Jerry Goldsmith score with a soundtrack by Tangerine Dream. Complying, Scott might as well not have bothered; arguably, the film sounded the death knell for his career as a respected auteur, at least until his triumphant return with Gladiator in 2000, as it was seen by many as an example in compromise and submission to the studios. Now that Scott’s final director’s cut of the film has been released, one can see what his intentions actually were; unfortunately, it remains an interesting, stylish and occasionally intoxicatingly beautiful failure.
The plot draws heavily on traditional fairytales, albeit with a greater emphasis on the dark, twisted and perverse aspects of the Grimm stories. Jack (Cruise) is a dashing young man who is in love, as all dashing young men who live in forests are, with a beautiful princess, Lily (Sara). Unfortunately, the state of beauty that the characters live in is disrupted by the appearance of Darkness (Curry), who wishes to kill the unicorns that prevent his total domination of the world, and would plunge the whole world into literal darkness. When Lily is kidnapped, Jack allies himself with an unlikely band of dwarves, hobgoblins and fairies, including Gump (Bennent), Blix (Playten) and Screwball (Barty), and sets off into the dark realms of the underground in search of his beloved.
The American theatrical cut of the film was widely criticised as being nothing more than a fairly empty exercise in Scott’s patented pretty pictures, with a complete lack of interest in the plot or characters. Unfortunately, the extended version of the film does little in terms of improving the plot (which remains confusing) or the characters (who, inevitably for this kind of film, remain archetypes); what it does do, magnificently, is to build an atmosphere for the film that may well be enough to persuade many that this new director’s cut is worth experiencing. As with Blade Runner, Scott does a superb job of creating a world for these characters to inhabit; his vision, as aided by William Hjortsberg’s script, comes across like a weird and sometimes wonderful mixture of Milton’s Paradise Lost, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast and, perhaps most interestingly, Lord of the Rings; unfortunately, the similarities are almost entirely visual. Although there are moments scattered throughout that occasionally imply something remarkable, such as a nightmarish scene in a prison with bodies being dismembered and a confrontation between Lily and Darkness, the vast majority of the film passes without a great deal of interest; to some extent, this justifies all Scott’s critics in their cries of ‘style over substance’, as the film is an almost textbook example of such a fault.
Performances in this kind of film often struggle to make any kind of impact over the costumes and sets, and this is no exception. Cruise is utterly anonymous in a role that virtually any young actor of the day could have played with equal success, and fails to make his ‘heroic’ character at all interesting or likeable. Sara is fairly insipid for most of the film’s length, with her best moments coming towards the end when she appears to come under Darkness’ influence, and the supporting goblins, faery folk and pixies fail to make strong individual impressions, apart from Bennent’s disturbing Gump. As you’d expect, it’s left to Curry to do his best RSC bit as the Lord of Darkness and steal the show; unfortunately, he is comparatively restrained in a role that would appear to cry out for an actor to chew scenery and roar his lines out, instead seeming constrained by his elaborate make-up. Technical credits are exceptionally good, with Jerry Goldsmith’s score certainly sounding far better than the miserably dated Tangerine Dream soundtrack, and all the sets, costumes and other accoutrements look stunning throughout.
There are two questions that people will probably ask about the film; namely, ‘Is it any good?’, and ‘Is the director’s cut any better?’. The answer to both has to be weighed down with qualifications, but, briefly, the film is likely to appeal most to Ridley Scott completists and people who dote on atmosphere at the expense of developed characters or a coherent plot. The director’s cut takes an interesting failure, and certainly makes it more interesting; unfortunately, in the final analysis, it does not make it any more successful as a piece of coherent filmmaking. On my first viewing of Lord of the Rings, I was critical of what I thought was excessively long-winded exposition and heavy-handed ‘character development’; however, a subsequent viewing of Rings, and then watching Legend, convinced me that, regardless of the calibre of the special effects and sets, a film of this kind stands or falls on whether the viewer cares about the characters. While Peter Jackson’s film succeeded admirably in this, in the final analysis, Scott’s film ends up being little more than a stunningly directed assembly of beautiful scenes, which look pleasing but have no real narrative grip. All things considered, it’s probably a good thing that Scott eschewed fantasy and science fiction after this; while Alien and Blade Runner were both cunning subversions of traditional narrative archetypes (the haunted house film and the film noir, respectively), this is miserably straight-faced, and does not work any better as a result. Ultimately, then, a disappointment, but one that should nevertheless be watched more than once.
The director’s cut is presented in a glorious 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer, which makes the film look stunning from beginning to end; although there are some minor, fleeting moments of print damage and speckling, the colours are wonderfully vibrant and strong for most of the film’s length, with the ‘darker’ (literally and figuratively) scenes coming across especially well. The theatrical cut is noticeably inferior throughout, with far more grain, some obvious print damage, and a duller look throughout the film. However, there’s no reason why anyone would want to watch this version in preference to the director’s cut, given that the only advantage it has over the longer cut is that it is shorter, if you find yourself unable to stomach the faery creatures.
The director’s cut has a couple of superb 5.1 Dolby and DTS mixes, which do a superb job of bringing the world created to active life; surround effects are used constantly and very effectively, and the music and dialogue are presented with great clarity and verve. The only minor problem is that, occasionally, the sound appears too focused on the front speakers. The theatrical cut is presented in Dolby Surround only, which is far less exciting and sounds more like a stereo mix than anything else.
As a DVD that has been delayed since time immemorial (well, for a couple of years), expectations were very high for a collection of supplements that the film would disturb. Although it doesn’t quite come up to the best standards of Fox or Criterion’s releases, it still represents a welcome move by Universal towards quality rather than quantity, as hinted at by their recent release of Spy Game, and continues that happy trend.
On the first disc, in addition to the director’s cut, is a commentary by Ridley Scott. As this is the first film of his that he has revisited that is not regarded as a bona fide success, his commentary is less ebullient than his tracks on Alien or Gladiator, but it is still a fascinatingly in-depth analysis of the film’s influences, technical aspects, performances and, of course, failure at the box office. Scott’s commentaries are always very strong, and this is no exception; the cynical might say that the only way to enjoy the film fully is to watch it with Scott’s narrative, as it makes a great deal more sense viewed that way.
On the second disc are a good, if not exactly innovative, set of extras, as produced by Charlie de Lauzirika. The main extra is a 50-minute making-of documentary, with interviews from everyone involved in the project (apart from Tom Cruise, unsurprisingly); this is a thorough and intelligent look at the film’s background, production (including a fair bit of information about the fire in production that destroyed the 007 stage at Pinewood where the film was being shot at the time), and, most interestingly, the decision to cut it down to virtual incoherence for the American market at the time. (For completists, the US theatrical version is included on the second disc; it isn’t very good.) Next up are a couple of ‘deleted scenes’, which are an alternate opening entitled ‘Four Goblins’ and a collection of storyboards and sound to illustrate the nightmarish-looking ‘Fairy Dance’ segment. The rest of the extras are more standard stuff; there are some storyboard sequences, still galleries, production notes, a trailer and, for Bryan Ferry fans, a dreadful video of his entitled ‘Is Your Love Strong Enough?’ Good song, shame about the dress and make-up. Overall, then, a pleasing but hardly stunning collection of supplements that nevertheless cover all the bases of interest.
Although Legend has a number of quite severe flaws, mainly due to the weak plot and the uninteresting characters, it is also extremely successful as an exercise in creating a highly atmospheric ‘world’ for the events to take place in. Although it isn’t anything like as good as Blade Runner, there are enough similarities with the style of that film to mean that this is a recommended watch for cineastes, albeit with the proviso that this is still a largely unsuccessful endeavour, albeit one improved somewhat by the director’s cut. The DVD provides excellent picture and sound quality, and some strong, interesting extras which will be of interest to most viewers. Although it’s hard to recommend the film without severe qualifications, this ‘Ultimate Edition’ is still the finest presentation it has ever had, and might well be of interest as a result.