Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz. Starring Vin Diesel, Michelle Yeoh, Gérard Depardieu, Charlotte Rampling, Mark Strong, Mélanie Thierry, Radek Bruna, Joel Kirby. (2008, PG-13, 90 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Sept. 5, 2008
Adapted from the novel Babylon Babies by French cyberpunk author, musician, and all-around agit-provocateur Maurice G. Dantec, Babylon A.D. looks and feels like it's part of an emerging trend in the apocalyptic sci-fi actioner escapades. That trend takes cyberpunky storylines and places them within a post-9/11 near-future (and frequently European setting) and then merges a streetwise sort of Bondian globe-trotting with a race against time to save an already worthless world. Revelation, redemption, and cute offspring ensue. I call it (sneeringly, natch) the "New Nihilism," but, to be fair, it's really just the old, Franco-Prussian existential angst hole ratcheted up and dumbed down for our not so brave new world. Dead, black, and blue replaces the now-obsolete red, white, and blue, and terror is the default norm from Texas to Timbuktu. Into this template strides Diesel's Toorop, a semihonorable monster, a killer with a code, a moral compass pointing due death. (In a wittily exploitive touch, we first meet the big lug in his dingy, heavily fortified, Eastern Bloc condo-squat, as he sits down to enjoy a leisurely dinner of neighborhood cat and Cabernet Sauvignon.) Kassovitz (who has publicly disavowed the finished film) knows the necessity of momentum in nihilistic shoot-’em-ups and allows his film roughly two minutes of breathing room before storm troopers flash-bang their way into Toorop's hovel and spirit him off to a meeting with a sinister Russian nose-extension prosthetic (behind which, absurdly, can be glimpsed Depardieu). The nose – Gorsky is its name – contracts Toorop to smuggle a sexy, Ukrainian nun/orphan (played with pouty lip by French actress Thierry) from the Cacausus to the Bering Strait and through Canada to New York City. Also along for the journey is the ever-exceptional Yeoh, as the convent's resident martial arts expert. Yeoh is the most serious aspect of a decidedly silly movie, and her scenes resonate old-school cool. She drips class like other action stars sweat testosterone, and this film is the better for it, if only a little. Diesel essentially reprises his XXX and Riddick characters, and the film feels similarly functional and not especially original. It's not a great action dustup by any means: An out-of-nowhere, jarringly optimistic denouement runs completely counter to everything that has come before, for one thing. And, too, there's the much-publicized fact that the director has referred to the release cut as "pure violence and stupidity … like a bad episode of 24," which sounds to me more like a personal grudge than an accurate assessment, since the film isn't anywhere near as enveloping as a bad episode of 24. Nevertheless, it's a dumb but efficient late-summer entertainment engine that nicely gentrifies plenty of ugly Eastern Bloc architecture via fireballs, unborn psychic cyber-twins, and Diesel's patented, snarly snark attack.