A few years back, Will Smith decided to try his hand at an adaptation of a classic science-fiction tale. The result was the lukewarm I, Robot -- and the similarities to Isaac Asimov's original story were tenuous at best. Now, three years later, Mr. Smith focuses his attention on another vaunted genre tale -- Richard Matheson's futuristic vampire story I Am Legend -- and the result is pretty much the same: Will Smith, center of attention for two straight hours as he flexes his muscles, furrows his brow, and tries to be an action hero and a true ack-tor at the same time. Which might help to explain why the best thing in I Am Legend, easily one of the most expensive studio releases in quite some time, is the lead performance by Will Smith. Not the look of a desolate New York and certainly NOT the feral creatures who attack our hero (too little, too late), but just a few scenes of Smith as his character begins to come ... unglued.
Slick, half-smart, and entirely enjoyable for the first 45 minutes or so (in which the premise is slowly laid out and we join Smith's Robert Neville on his daily "rounds"), Francis Lawrence's second flick (after the equally schizophrenic Constantine) starts out on a very strong foundation -- but once the creatures start shuffling around and posing a lot more of a threat than creatures like this actually should (how'd they get so strong and ... acrobatic?), I Am Legend loses its footing and stumbles around until offering up a conveniently pat ending that's entirely unfitting for a (surprisingly) dark story like this.
It's a good thing indeed that Smith offers such a seriously fine performance; aside from a canine co-star (and some predictably tragic flashbacks) there's very little to SEE in I Am Legend besides Will Smith and a deserted New York City. Fortunately for all (except logic), Smith's Robert Neville is not only an amazingly efficient and good-hearted man ... he's ALSO a military-trained master of survival AND the very sort of scientist who can build a massive laboratory for himself in order to cure a disease that's killed over 90% of the planet's population. How fortuitous! By night, Neville performs operations on "the infected" (only one of many ideas borrowed from Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later) and by day, he hunts deer with his loyal pooch Sam -- despite the fact that the kitchen in Neville's fort is stocked with enough food to feed Will Smith's entire family for three decades. I digress.
Before the diseased-yet-oddly superhuman villains start to appear en masse, I Am Legend works surprisingly well. The New York exteriors really are quite chillingly effective, and Smith does a fine job of keeping us interested in how Neville just might save the human race. But once the beasties start making more frequent house calls, I Am Legend begins to feel like just another ultra-expensive tentpole flick in which one noble hero must stay one step ahead of some violently swarming masses. (Replace the non-vampire sorta-mutants with shiny robots and we've got I, Robot all over again, and to that I say no thank you.)
I Am Legend takes such an appreciably good deal of time laying out Neville's plight that once the way-too-rushed third act rolls around, it's hard not to be disappointed in the final product. For about half of the movie, I Am Legend is an unexpectedly dark, smart, and old-school-style piece of sci-fi filmmaking, but once the (too few and generally unimpressive) action scenes pop up, the flick starts to feel like every other wannabe blockbuster that lumbers down the pike. Plus, the alterations made to Matheson's story are pretty arbitrary: Switching the creatures from vampires to cannibalistic mutants who melt in sunlight -- kinda make no sense.
As an action movie, I Am Legend fails pretty miserably. As a horror flick, it's pretty solid until (ironically enough) the monsters show up. As science-fiction, eh, it's about as good as the previous adaptations (The Last Man of Earth and The Omega Man, in case you're wondering), but given how much time, effort, and money was poured into this project, it really shouldn't feel this undercooked. One day someone will finally get this story right.
Loved the dog, though. Seriously. Will Smith's best co-star in quite some time.