When it comes to directors complaining about not getting final cut, I’m inclined to side with the filmmakers over the anonymous, scissor-happy studio executives. Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America,” Wim Wenders’ “Until the End of the World” and Kevin Smith’s “Jersey Girl” are just three titles in recent decades that seemed mediocre at first glance but wound up being far, far better movies when seen as their creators originally intended.
So when French filmmaker Matthieu Kassovitz (“Hate,” “Gothika”) recently complained that Fox chopped up his new movie “Babylon A.D.” to look “like a bad episode of ‘24,’” my heart went out to him. Having seen the film, however, it’s hard to know exactly whom to blame for its shrill mediocrity.
In Kassovitz’s defense, the plot appears to have been pared down from an ambitious exploration of religion and technology in a future society to a dopey rip-off of “Children of Men,” with Vin Diesel as tough-guy mercenary Toorop, who’s been given one last assignment. He’s got to go to a convent in Mongolia and sneak a young orphan girl outside of a cruel and dystopic Russia and into a very “Blade Runner”–ish New York City. Accompanying the beautiful Aurora (Mélanie Thierry) is her lifelong guardian, Sister Rebekah (Michelle Yeoh, underutilized).
Certain moments in the film work, from a rousing snowmobile chase to the conception of technology and design in the future. And a subplot involving a corporate religion — whose CEO is played by the glorious Charlotte Rampling, who’s been lit and made up terribly here — looks like the sort of potentially interesting script detail that’s the first to hit the floor once outside forces take over in the editing room.
Still, a case could be made that Kassovitz had a stinker on his hands no matter who had cut the movie. For one thing, the two lead actors are just awful. Diesel seems to be skidding inexorably into Steven Seagal territory, giving some line readings that are hilariously awful. As for the character of Aurora, it takes a talented actress to keep a character whose principal qualities are goodness and purity from being crushingly dull; Thierry does not seem to be a talented actress.
Toss in clunky details like the horrible dubbing of Gérard Depardieu (whose I’m-a-Russian-gangster makeup is so clumsily applied you can almost see the spirit gum) and a fight sequence on scaffolding that’s meant to look like indoor parkour but instead resembles an enthusiastic high school production of “Rent,” and it’s tempting to accuse Kassovitz of engaging in a little creative CYA with the filmgoing public.
Ultimately, despite a few bright spots, “Babylon A.D.” is exactly the kind of what-the-heck-was-that-already movie that gets dumped into theaters every Labor Day weekend. If the eventual director’s cut DVD proves this movie to be a masterpiece, then I’ll be first in line to buy it. Given what’s currently unfolding on the big screen, however, it’s no wonder the director is so eager to disown it.