by Mel Valentin
The word “execrable” doesn’t begin to describe…wait, that phrase’s been already, so let’s try this again. The word “abysmal” doesn’t begin…stop, that’s sounding familiar too. Let’s move on then. Vin Diesel’s latest film (as star not director, of course), "Babylon A.D.," a science-fiction actioner set in a familiar post-apocalyptic future, is an incoherent, muddled mess not worth the price of admission. 20th-Century Fox made the right call not to screen "Babylon A.D." in advance for the press. How could they when director Mathieu Kassovitz ("Gothika," "The Crimson Rivers," "La Haine"), angrily disowned the theatrical cut as profoundly compromised by studio interference. Studio interference aside, "Babylon A.D." really deserves every negative adjective used in describing its many failings.While Kassovitz refuses to give us an opening scrawl telling us when and where Babylon A.D. is set (somewhere in Eastern Europe, apparently), he does give us Toorop (Vin Diesel), a former marine-turned-mercenary, expounding on his banal philosophy (e.g., kill or be killed, look out for self, above all else, etc.) via voiceover narration. Post-prologue (or is it actually part of the same prologue?), Kassovitz shows us how mean and tough Toorop is by following him in a squatter’s camp filled with well-armed men. After beating a gun dealer senseless for selling him a crap product, Toorop buys some meat from the local market. Before Toorop can sit down to dinner and watch the evening news, mercenaries employed by Gorsky (Gérard Depardieu), an arms dealer and smuggler. Gorsky offers Toorop a proposition: money and freedom in exchange for transporting a woman from Mongolia to New York.
"Will leave you stupified at its abject awfulness. Seriously."
After getting dropped off at a Mongolian convent (yes, you read that right) run by the Neolite Order, Toorop meets his human cargo, Aurora (Mélanie Thierry), a young woman who’s never left the convent and her protector-mentor, Sister Rebeka (Michelle Yeoh). Toorop must deliver Aurora to his handlers in New York in six days (Why six days? Who knows?). Even with the help of a smuggler friend, Finn (Mark Strong), getting to the U.S. border (via a frozen Bering Strait) is one thing, but Toorop is persona non grata in the United States, so slipping in unnoticed will prove harder than anticipated. All Toorop wants, though, is to return to his childhood home in upstate New York and retire from his profession. Of course, nothing goes as…
Oh, forget it. Let’s just stop there. What we end up learning about Aurora and her uniqueness as well as why the High Priestess (Charlotte Rampling) of the Neolite Order and a disabled scientist, Darquandier (Lambert Wilson), want Aurora, makes little to no sense, as do the revelations about who she is and what she portends for humanity. Babylon A.D.’s storyline is, by turns, derivative (elements are borrowed from Children of Men, The Fifth Element, Escape From New York, and Demon Seed) nonsensical, and, by the last act, completely and utterly incoherent. The various plots and counter-plots don’t hold up under close scrutiny, character motivations are either ill-defined (or not defined at all), and Vin Diesel is expected to carry the heavy emotional weight for an unpersuasive, if predictable, character arc.
To be fair (okay, to be generous), Kassovitz shows flashes of competency as a director. When he’s not over-editing an action scene into incoherence, he at least manages to get the actors moving through their paces and the momentum from flagging too much. As the co-adapter of the screenplay, however, Kassovitz is his own worst enemy. Sure, he’s publicly disowned the theatrical cut, a cut missing fifteen or twenty minutes, but it’s hard to imagine, wait, no, it’s almost impossible to imagine that missing footage adding anything. An extra fifteen or twenty minutes of celluloid won’t solve the clumsy, awkward, exposition heavy dialogue that Kassovitz leans on to keep the plot and subplots moving toward their inevitable, if nonsensical, conclusions.
Whatever faults it may have (and there are many), Babylon A.D. is still a Vin Diesel flick, and all that entails, good, bad, and indifferent: heavy on brawn and action, short on character and depth (e.g., xXx, The Fast and the Furious). Diesel is a charismatic performer, but limited as an actor. Ask him to drop a cutting, sarcastic remark and he can pull it off. Ask him to emote or show dynamic range in his voice and you’re asking for more than he can deliver. If you (meaning a director, not “you” the reader) do that, get ready for a steady stream of guffaws from your audience. That’s assuming, of course, said audience decides to sit through Babylon A.D.’s seemingly interminable running time.Sadly, Gérard Depardieu ("Green Card," "Cyrano de Bergerac," "Camille Claudel," "The Return of Martin Guerre") seems to have moved on to the morbidly obese stage of his acting career (think Marlon Brando, just thinner). Why Charlotte Rampling ("Heading South," "Swimming Pool") appears in "Babylon A.D." is any one’s guess. The only person she probably pleased was her business manager, whoever he or she may be. Mélanie Thierry is really just another pretty face. She’s bland, vapid, and depth-free. It doesn’t help, of course, that English isn’t her first language (it’s not Kassovitz’s either). Kassovitz didn’t know what to do with Michelle Yeoh ("Hidden Dragon, Crouching Tiger") either. Ten minutes into her role as Sister Rebeka, it’s obvious the character is all but superfluous. Kassovitz forces Yeoh (okay, “forces” might be too strong a word here, since Yeoh took the role willingly).
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=17276&reviewer=402
originally posted: 09/03/08 23:00:00