Babylon A.D. (UK - DVD R2)
Leigh reviews the extended version of the recent Vin Diesel Sci-Fi actioner...
New Serbia: the near future. Notorious American gun-for-hire Toorop (Vin Diesel) forcibly accepts a contract from local gangster Gorsky (Gerard Depardeu) to escort a mysterious girl (Melanie Thierry) and her charge (Michelle Yeoh) across post-apocalyptic Eastern Europe and over to the still lavish New York. What seems like a simple gig turns into an ordeal as they are hunted constantly throughout the vast journey, with the stakes becoming even higher once Toorop discovers that the girl holds a secret that could shake the world to its core.
It's hard to recall the last movie that had as much negative word of mouth as Babylon A.D. did. Practically disowned by director Mathieu Kassovitz in the press, dismissing the film as studio compromised, butchered stupidity, the writing was on the wall for the movie before it was even released. And sure enough, when it was eventually released, it was indeed a rather mangled, incoherent dog of a film. Having said that, the film showed promise in spots, and I thought it would be interesting to see what it would and could have been. And sure enough, a few months later, here's the obligatory 'extended' edition that Fox continues to release, in the hope that a few rather poorly dubbed 'F' words and CGI blood squibs will entice movie fans to part with their money.
All credit to Fox, this is a different animal to the likes of Die Hard 4.0 and Max Payne. Although this is not Kassovitz's now mythical one hundred and sixty one minute director's cut, Fox has rather kindly ported over the French Studio Canal 'director approved' cut, adding over ten minutes of plot that is so essential that you wonder what possessed the theatrical editor to cuts the more visceral violence, a more adult tone and an ending that actually makes sense. While the film is still rather truncated compared to the original book, the film is far more satisfying, albeit frustratingly flawed.
Best described as either A) Children of Men for the hard of thinking meets xXx, or B), what Fifth Element would have been if Luc Besson hadn't written the script when he was fourteen. The film wants to have its cake and eat it by being both a sci-fi chin stroker and knock out actioner. It has to be said that despite its rather ramshackle construction, Kassovitz has crafted a handsome looking Hollywood production. The film has some great setpieces, the cinematography is top-notch, and the action sequences are solid in this extended form (the action was horribly trimmed down in the theatrical version).
Kassovitz also gains kudos for wringing a better performance from Diesel than he has given in quite a while, which helps the film a little, but it has to be said the man is fairly miscast, and would have suited somebody like Bruce Willis far better. Seeing as Diesel has been phoning it in pretty much ever since xXx, it's nice to see him give a little bit of colour to a role. Being DVDActive's resident action geek, I am therefore allowed to reference Dieselogy without being made fun of in forums, and I would say that the character Vin creates is a pleasing mixture of Riddick's moral ambiguity and the hair-trigger rage of Sean Vetter from the unfairly maligned A Man Apart. It's still not classic stuff from Vin, and maybe one day he will equal the great performance he gave in Boiler Room, but it certainly isn't happening in Babylon A.D..
In fact, everybody in the film is a little off, with Thierry being over the top on one end of the spectrum, and Depardieu seeming to be asleep on the other end, but at least he isn't badly dubbed by another actor in this version. Of course, the vast amount of footage removed from the film means character work probably ended up on the cutting room floor, so technically it's not their fault. It does have to be said that even considering this is an extended version of the film, containing a far more coherent and satisfying ending, the movie has so many loose ends that the story feels more like a cliff-hanger than a complete arc.
It was also a mistake to leave out the climactic car chase from the theatrical version, because having been hacked from a multi layered film into an actioner means that the pace flags badly in the final twenty minutes or so. All these problems add up to deliver a film that pushes the right buttons superficially, but will ultimately frustrate the viewer with its roughshod storytelling and unintentionally ambiguous denouement. Although it was undeniably a bad film, I liked the theatrical version more than most did and enjoyed the extended version far more, but the one feeling I had after watching both versions of the film is this: why on earth decide to buy and produce a project that will be then bent so out of shape that it doesn't resemble the original property at all?
The 2.35:1 transfer offered here sells Kassovitz's considerable eye very well. The image is very sharp and clear, with some superb detail, nice deep black levels, little noticeable grain and no defects. The colours are well supported, with the New York sequence in particular looking rather lavish. Action sequences are also well served, with the Bourne cam coming off looking impressive in the cage fight and ending shootout. While this isn't a stunning transfer, it's a very solid one.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is pretty impressive too, with nice dialogue levels and particularly strong use of surrounds in the various shootouts, crunching fight sequences and chases. The score swells nicely within the mix without swamping the other elements, and throughout the subwoofer throbs away nicely. Coupled with the image quality, the technical aspects of the disc are very kind to Babylon A.D.
While not packed with features, there is enough content here to keep a fan happy. Obviously there is no director's commentary, but there is ‘Babylon Babies’, a featurette on Maurice G. Dantec, author of the film's source novel of the same name. Mostly touching upon the book and its themes, he also touches upon the film adaptation, while neatly sidestepping his opinions on the finished product. It's only when you hear the writer explain the themes of the novel that you realise how much has been excised from Babylon A.D..
Many of the remaining features centre on stunts and action. ‘Arctic Escape’ breaks down the snowmobile chase, ‘Fit for the Screen’ the cage-fighting scene, and ‘Hummers in Flight’, which details the construction of the excised car-chase scene (tellingly, directed by stunt coordinator Kenny Bates after principal photography wrapped, with no input from Kassovitz). The chase is included as a deleted scene in its original anamorphic ratio. ‘Prequel to Babylon A.D.: Genesis of Aurora’ which is an animated prologue presented in graphic novel form and fills in some background information to push the main feature along a little more. The final feature is the always pointless photo gallery, and the equally redundant digital copy is on disc two. It's interesting to note that he director has no input in the special features whatsoever.
Although the theatrical version is a bungled disaster, the relatively small ten minute extension in this edition improves the film twofold. There are still problems that simply can't be ignored, with the truncated plotline being the main offender. However, the film is at least coherent in this version, and what with the action being far more fleshed out, better edited and harder in tone, this at least resembles a proper film. While the movie isn't an essential purchase by any stretch of the imagination, I'd certainly recommend it to the curious viewer. Not as bad as you heard, not as good as it could have been, this is still a more than watchable ninety odd minutes.
Review by Leigh Riding
Suitable only for persons of 15 years and over
Release Date: 28th December 2008
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English, Audio Descriptive 5.1 English
Subtitles: English HoH, Hebrew
Extras: Babylon Babies, Arctic Escape, Fit For The Screen, Hummers In Flight, Prequel to Babylon A.D.: Genesis Of Aurora, Deleted Hummer Sequence, Still Galleries, Digital Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Mathieu Kassovitz
Cast: Vin Diesel, Michelle Yeoh, Mark Strong, Gerard Depardieu
Length: 96 minutes
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