Ridley Scott's intentions in making Legend are clearly to create both the definitive fantasy film of the decade and a brand new, instant-classic fairy tale. He has said that, in preparing to make the movie, he and screenwriter William Hjortsberg studied all of the classic Grimm fairy tales and discovered that many were either too short or too simple or both. Their reaction to this discovery was to go another way, and make a movie that is neither short (in its original cut, anyway) nor simple. In doing so, they ensured that Legend would fail as a traditional fairy tale. Fairy tales deal with big, simple themes. They have basic but iconic characters. Many involve a quest, the purposes and goals of which are clearly outlined. Legend has none of this. It offers a hero, Jack (Tom Cruise), who is in love with a young girl, Lily (Sloane Peterson); together, the pair are perfect innocents. Things get all fucked up when Lily leads two goblins to a unicorn (she just HAS to touch it, even when she's told she shouldn't) and they steal its horn, plunging the world into total darkness. When Lily is kidnapped by the evil Lord Darkness (Tim Curry, unrecognizable under makeup), it's up to Jack to rescue Lily and recover the unicorn's horn to restore light and prevent the rule of Darkness. In this quest, he enlists Honeythorn the elf, Oona the fairy and two dwarves, Screwball and Brown Tom. Yes, Legend is the kind of fantasy movie that turns people off of fantasy movies just based on the characters' names.
So the movie throws around big concepts like LIGHT and DARK and INNOCENCE, but without fleshing out any of those ideas, they just become buzz words -- shorthand for the mythology the film wants to create. Legend doesn't really have anything to say about these concepts. What it does have is a ton of voice modulation. Pretty much every actor that isn't Tom Cruise or Sloane Peterson (who play the only real humans in the movie) has a voice that's been electronically manipulated in some way, and the cumulative effect is almost punishing in how grating it becomes.
Because the narrative is sloppy even in the 113-minute cut, Legend is never going to feel tight or make much sense. And if that's the case, I'd rather watch the 89-minute theatrical cut -- not just because it's shorter, but because the leaps it takes over large parts of the story make it feel even more dreamlike. Ditto for the Tangerine Dream score (because "dream" is IN THE BAND'S NAME), which trades in the majesty of Jerry Goldsmith for ethereal synthesizer atmosphere. The theatrical cut also removes a lot of the dialogue, which is for the best because Legend plays better as a silent movie. The opening third, in particular (before the movie shifts into one long snowy nighttime scene populated by swamps and rubber faces), is arguably the most beautiful fantasy movie ever made -- Dungeons & Dragons by way of Terrence Malick.
As an actor, Tom Cruise has an impressive ability to either drive the movie in which he's appearing (I've said it before -- he drags them towards success through sheer force of will) or separate himself from the material so that at least he stands out as a movie star, often times to a distracting degree. What makes Legend such a curiosity in his filmography is that he's totally stranded without a character to play or a performance to give. While it speaks to his ability to align himself with visionary directors (in addition to working with Ridley Scott, he was worked with Scorsese, Coppola, Kubrick, Sydney Pollack, Cameron Crowe, Paul Thomas Anderson, John Woo, Brian DePalma, Brad Bird, Neil Jordan and Oliver Stone, among others), it marks the only time in his entire career in which Tom Cruise is a total nonentity. Yes, Jack sets the story in motion by telling Lily where to find the unicorns, and he ends the story by defeating Darkness, but everything in between is vague and shapeless. It doesn't help that he has to look at some unicorns and say lines like "They express only love and laughter -- dark thoughts are unknown to them." There might not be a good way to deliver that bon mot.
Lots of the dialogue in the movie is bad in a VERY on-the-nose way. Among Sloane Peterson's last lines in the film are "I learned something about myself. And about you." Um, WE KNOW THAT, Sloane Peterson. THAT IS WHAT DRAMA IS. Characters learn something new about themselves and the other characters -- they just usually have the decency not to come out and explicitly state it. Because the theatrical cut has to get rid of a lot of the dialogue, it just starts with a title crawl that not only includes all of the beats that are no longer explained through dialogue, but also plainly states the themes of the movie. It's a real time saver. The theatrical cut also doesn't fuck around and make you wait over an hour to get your first look at Tim Curry as Darkness. It puts him right up front. In theory, I'm opposed to all the changes in the theatrical cut, because they basically pander to '80s audiences -- adding in contemporary music and pop songs (especially at the end), fucking with the pacing, throwing out exposition and adding back in more stuff that's "cool" -- but it's also hard to argue with the results. The theatrical cut of Legend is a lesser movie, but it's the one I return to year after year.
A Few Good Men before being hauled off to jail. Getting rid of guys he maybe shouldn't is apparently a thing for Tom Cruise. But Darkness's words suggest a deeper meaning for Legend, which spends so much time being a "dark" fairy tale that I started to wonder if maybe that was Ridley Scott's point -- that fairy tales are good lessons in morality to pass down to children, but that they cannot be devoid of darkness (lower case 'd'). The original Grimm fairy tales, in particular, are filled with things that are horrifying, but to a point: without the darker elements of the stories (like monsters, dark magic or the constant threat of death), there is no lesson to be learned. Children will not choose the light without understanding what awaits them in the dark -- it is, by definition, a necessary evil. But because so little of Legend actually bothers to deal with this theme at all, Darkness's final warnings come off as the angry, last-ditch rantings of a big red asshole.
Legend holds a very special place in '80s genre cinema. It tries to do what so many low-budget (often European) films were doing on a larger, more expensive scale, but it fails to understand what makes many fantasy movies work. Yes, fantasy provides enchanted forests and fairies and unicorns and swords and magic and monsters, but those are the dressing on what should be a classical hero's journey. Scott, a former commercial director, is often accused of focusing more on images than on story. Legend might be the movie to which his critics are referring. It's is a very, VERY beautiful movie -- one of the most beautiful of the '80s -- but it's clear that much of the attention has been devoted to the photography and not the narrative. The movie has so much imagination and atmosphere, but without those things being in the service of something tangible or concrete, they just float around without a chair to sit in when the music stops.
It is a movie that could really only exist in the 1980s, when genre movies burned bright and eventually flamed out, in part thanks to movies like Legend. It is a movie I can't really defend liking, even though, despite much of what I've said, I kind of do. It is an ambitious failure. A beautiful mess.
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