Reel Society

Reviews for the latest movies in theaters and on DVD.

Babylon A.D.

 
Review by David Tredler

Mathieu Kassovitz adapting Maurice G. Dantec. It was a dream combination : a sulphurous filmmaker for a sulphurous author. A dream for those of us who read “Babylon Babies”, and a dream for Kassovitz, who’s been working on the project for many years, A dream Kassovitz wanted to create out of Hollywood, after the difficult experience that was Gothika. A dream he envisioned for European cinema. But it was too big a dream.

In a not so distant future, Hugo Toorop, a mercenary more or less hiding himself in Eastern Europe, accepts a job offered by a Russian mobster, to smuggle a girl to New York City. It’s a high-risk task and a long journey (by road and by sea), while the intriguing girl interests a lot of people along the way. But what makes her so precious is a mystery Toorop fears to discover.

“Babylon Babies” is a 600-page, futuristic punk ride greatly influenced by the actuality of its time, the late nineties, a dense, intense, complex geopolitical adventure and a visionary portrait of the future at the same time. The kind of book you can’t let go easily. But adapting it to the big screen was probably an ill move.  Kassovitz’s dream would have necessitated more freedom from his financiers, more money than his $60 million budget, more work on the script, more length, and a different actor. And that’s a lot, folks.

Back when I read “Babylon Babies” (which was some time before Kassovitz became attached to a film transposition) I remember imagining Toorop with the face of Vincent Cassel, a strong, mysterious, cynical warrior not quite at ease in a corrupt world that is falling to pieces. When Kassovitz announced his desire to put the book on the silver screen, everyone expected him to cast Cassel, his fetish actor, in the lead. It seemed natural, and for a long time the actor was rumoured to have been cast. But Kassovitz preferred to cast an international action star (probably advised by his foreign financiers, including 20th Century Fox), Vin Diesel, a choice symptomatic of Babylon A.D.’s defects.

The film should have been a dense, dark, complex, epic and trippy two-and-a-half hour adventure. What it was instead was just a quick sci-fi road movie lacking boldness, character development and ambition. This wasn’t Kassovitz’s dream,  as it so clearly feels like the film has been truncated in the editing room to conform to a more standard “Vin Diesel action movie” (like xXx, for example). An actor who, as efficient as he can be as a big guy you don’t want to mess with, is an evident casting mistake, as his Toorop is more like a killing machine with a nice side, a reductive and unengaging approach of the character.

Kassovitz had already adapted a cult novel in the past, Crimson Rivers, who already showed his uneasiness with capturing the essence of the novel, but at least showed what a great director he was, after his remarkable work in the nineties with Cafe au Lait, La Haine and Assassin(s). Babylon A.D. is a failure, which indicates that for the past few years the French filmmaker seems a bit lost. Let’s hope his future (a return to French-speaking films with the political action film L’Ordre et la Morale) will see him get back on track.

2 / 5 stars

 
 
 
 

Review by Chris Keller

It seems to me that Vin Diesel (real name: Mark Vincent), likes his routine. He rarely steps outside his comfort zone when choosing movie roles, and when he does, he always takes two steps back – as if he were terrified of this new world.  Diesel has wandered into a few territories that may not have been native to his reputation (The Pacifier, Find Me Guilty), but he’s been up to his neck in what seems to be his two “can’t miss” categories – driving fast vehicles while looking tough (The Fast & The Furious series, xXx) and being in either outer space or the future (The Chronicles of Riddick, Pitch Black, the upcoming Rockfish). His latest, Babylon A.D., definitely falls in the latter, and as expected, doesn’t stray far from where he feels at home.

Diesel stars as Toorop, a mercenary with the ability to take on dozens of heavily-armed soldier with nothing but his thoroughly unexplained, and therefore mysteriously superior, combat skills. The audience is forced to assume his ultra-tough nature, since his employer dispatches a small army simply to find him while Toorop spouts Taratino-esque lines - “If you wanted to kill me, you should’ve blown up the building”. Toorop is proposed with an all-too-tempting and seemingly simple job offer: escort a young girl from an ancient convent in Asia to New York City in six days. Of course, this easy task turns out to be much more than Toorop signed up for.

The first two acts play out as a low-rent version of Children of Men; from the reluctant yet persistent tough guy guide and the odd-acting, over-distraught girl all the way down to the bleak futuristic backdrop. Akin to Children of Men, the audience is never fully told what happened to world for it to appear as such, nor do we ever know why exactly the girl in question needs to get to her respective destination. However, unlike the Alfonso Cuaron film, we feel no sort of desire to see our protagonist complete his mission. Toorop comes off as an uber-jock, the type of guy who shoved smaller kids into lockers and garbage cans, except in the future and with a lot more firepower. Diesel fails to establish any sort of connection to the audience, so much so that at times we want him to fail, if only in hopes to spice up his extremely bland mission.

The girl in question, the damsel in distress if you will, is Aurora, a very young (and strangely pretty) woman with either a very advanced form of dementia, or maybe just crazy. It’s partially explained that she has some sort of mental powers, the ability to operate a decades-old Russian submarine for example, but we never get a full story on this and it comes across as more of an annoying, naïve little girl than a supernatural vixen.

The third act plays very much like any one of the Saw sequels: it’s the last 20 minutes where we are revealed how everything happened in long, sprawling monologues set to quick cut flashbacks. And much like the Saw sequels, none of this makes any sense – secondary characters do idiotic things for little or no reason, some main characters die, followed by an ending scene that completely destroys any faith one had in the last 80 minutes. Characters are introduced in the third act simply to attempt to make sense of all that has happened, some main characters are dropped because they have served their purpose, and one character that has only been seen or mentioned in snippets throughout the film turns out to be someone extremely important to the finale.

Director Mathieu Kassovitz recently came out to the Internet to try to explain that this atrocity is due to studio interference, and not to a sub-par script and terrible performances.  If anything, the apparent Fox meddling helps the movie a bit – the presumably forced action sequences shortly pull you back into the story, but it’s not long before the flaws of Kassovitz’s screenplay comes roaring back to life. But when a movie is in such a state that the director publicly denounces it, you know you’re in for an extremely forgettable, and laughingly bad, motion picture event. If nothing else, Babylon A.D. delivers on that front.

1 ½ / 5 stars
 

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