Control Nathan and Clint: Legend (1985)
Welcome, friends, to the latest installment of Control Nathan and Clint, the column where we give YOU, the Nathan Rabin’s Happy Cast/Place donor the power to choose which of three dire-looking motion pictures me and Clint must watch and then write about. The latest podcast is all about Lilliputian action hero and eccentric human being Tom Cruise so we chose a trio of Cruise screw-ups: 1988’s oily-slick “Top Gun, but for bartenders” drama Cocktail, 2017’s The Mummy and the ultimate winner, Ridley Scott’s Legend.
Tom Cruise didn't just make iconic blockbuster movies in the 1980s and 1990s: he very specifically made Tom Cruise movies, a lucrative and voluminous sub-genre about confident-to-the-point-of-cocky young prodigies who discover that they’re capable of far more than they ever dreamed possible, often with the help of a tough but fair mentor and a love interest that helps expand the protagonist’s horizons sexually and otherwise.
Legend stars a young, miscast Tom Cruise but it is not a Tom Cruise movie. It’s not even really a Tom Cruise vehicle. Tom Cruise vehicles showcase their star in the best, most commercial and flattering light. They exist to serve his enormous ego but also the public’s insatiable appetite for the actor but Legend strands an overwhelmed and lost Cruise in a bland role that finds him playing second fiddle to little people buried under layer upon layer of latex and make-up.
How the hell are you going to remain the central focus in a shot when you’re acting opposite a fantasy creature with a penis-nose? As all of the actors other than Dan Ackroyd in Nothing But Trouble can attest, it’s impossible to compete with a penis-nose (that is a nose distractingly and disconcertingly shaped exactly like a penis) for audience attention. Forget puppies and children: if you really don’t want to be upstaged, stay the hell away from penis-noses. That’s literally the first thing they teach you at Yale Drama School.
The second thing they teach you at Yale Drama School? Unless a movie has “Star Wars” in its title, stay the fuck away from movies with elaborate opening crawls.
Like a disproportionate number of films we’ve covered in Control Nathan and Clint, Legend begins with an opening crawl a la Star Wars. Opening crawls serve a useful purpose in relaying pertinent information as efficiently as possible. But they’re also inevitably designed to create a sense of epic scope and breath. They tell us that what we’re about to see is no mere movie but rather a saga, an epic, and also a movie that would like very much to be compared to Star Wars, even if those comparisons are doomed to be unflattering.
That’s certainly true of Legend’s opening crawl, which reads,
Once long ago, before there was such a thing as time, the world was shrouded in darkness.
Then came the splendor of light, bringing life and love into the Universe, and the Lord of Darkness retreated deep into the shadows of the earth, plotting his return to power... by banishing light forever.
But precious light is protected, harbored in the souls of Unicorns, the most mystical of all creatures.
Unicorns are safe from the Lord of Darkness, they can only be found by the purest of mortals... Such a mortal is Jack, who lives in solitude with the animals of the forest.
A beautiful girl named Lily loves Jack with all her heart. In their innocence, they believe only goodness exists in the world.
Together they will learn there can be no good without evil... No love without hate... No heaven without hell... No light without darkness.
The harmony of the Universe depends upon an eternal balance. Out of the struggle to maintain this balance comes the birth of Legends.
Opening crawls are supposed to usher us into breathtaking worlds beyond our imaginations, fantastic universes we’ll want to return to over and over again. Legend’s opening crawl accomplishes the exact opposite. First of all, it’s fucking exhausting. It’s so long and so convoluted that I was legitimately a little tired after reading it. And the movie had barely just begun!
Legend’s opening crawl inspired dread instead of excitement. There’s fantasy and then there’s unicorn magic-based fantasy. I don’t have much of an appetite even for good fantasy. Magical unicorn-based fantasy? Sweet blessed Lord. I do not have time for magical unicorn-based fantasy. At the risk of being deemed a “hater”, I find magical unicorn based fantasy rather silly.
The Director’s Cut of Legend runs nearly an hour longer than the theatrically released version and is supposed be both substantially better and significantly darker but you can only be so nightmarish and disturbing when your entire world is based on motherfucking unicorn magic.
Before he discovered the magic of Scientology, Cruise, or at least Jack, the shaggy-haired nature boy he plays here, was all about unicorn magic, which, let’s face it, has as much legitimacy as Scientology does. Early in Legend, Jack explains to his beloved Lilli (Mia Sara, who was still in here teens when the film was made), of the one-horned furry motherfuckers in their midst, “Nothing is more magical.” He goes on to explain, “As long as (unicorns) roam the earth, evil can never harm the pure of heart.”
These unicorns, needless to say, are not haters who spend their days posting nasty comments online. As Jack admiringly informs Lilli, “They express only love and laughter”, which is also true of me when I’m on some really good MDMA. Otherwise, not so much.
The central presence of unicorn magic makes Legend seem less like a modern day retelling of a Grimm Brothers fairy tale so much as the overachieving feature film adaptation of a trapper keeper design from Lisa Frank, whose unicorn and puppy-intensive tableaus were a fixture of elementary school life in the 1980s.
Cruise may be as tiny as an elf, but he does not do whimsy. He does not do mystical. His default mode is grim determination, so, needless to say, it seems a little off to have him gushing about the innocence and wonder of motherfucking unicorn magic.
Jack is creature of purity. He’s also a dumbass who shows Lilli these magical creatures, who express only love and laughter, without conveying the terrible danger endemic in touching these sacred hides. Oh sure, he dutifully yells, “No, Lily, you mustn’t!” but you just can’t reason with someone intent on getting their grubby mitts all over a magical-ass unicorn because as soon as Lilly touches a unicorn it’s hit with a poison dart shot by Blix, (Alice Playten), one of the evil minions of towering, Satanic being Darkness (Tim Curry).
Lilly doesn’t realize the grave consequences of her actions so she tosses a ring into a body of water and when Jack dives in to retrieve it, a goblin trio manages to fatally cut off the unicorn’s alicorn, transforming the lush, glittery paradise of the forest instantly and dramatically into a harsh arctic realm.
Before he brings the fight to Darkness, Jack, who begins the film wearing some weird modified caveman garb, including a loincloth that doesn’t seem to be doing a particularly good job of containing and hiding the actor’s junk, he must first Squad up with some fantastical sidekicks and foils, including Billy Barty and Cork Hubbert as elves Screwball and Brown Tom, lovestruck fairy Oona, who pines for Jack even as she can never have him and finally Honeythorn Gump, an elf whose mama presumably also told him that life was like a box of chocolates: overpriced, overhyped and filled with things you don’t want, need or like but end up paying for all the same.
On a world-building level, Legend is incontestably impressive. There’s a reason Ridley Scott is considered a great filmmaker despite the many, many, many less-than-great films littering his resume. Legend follows Alien and Blade Runner and while it’s nowhere near as engaging as either film, his genius for creating unforgettable images and immersing audiences in meticulously realized universes remained strong.
True, the glittery fantasy world of Legend looks like it belongs on the side of a 1970s van and the nightmare world of darkness seemingly owes much to the heavy metal album covers of the 1980s. Also, unicorns. Fucking unicorns with their fucking unicorn magic and also fucking fairies with their fairy glamour.
Yet Legend soars on the level of pure spectacle, albeit in a way that may be lost on the sober. I was regrettably lucid when I watched Legend and spent much of the film wishing that I was high. If nothing else, I think I might have appreciated Tangerine Dream’s totally 1980s synth score more.
I also found myself thinking that I would enjoy perambulating through a museum showing Legend’s costumes and sets more than I did watching the film. After all, the sets and costumes and make-up are all dazzling in their virtuosity and craft but on an emotional level the movie did not work at all for me.
Like far too many visually sumptuous fantasy epics, Legend dazzles the eye and creates a vivid, larger-than-life world of good and evil, darkness and light, demons and angelic figures of pure light but gives us absolutely no reason to care about anything happening within its picture-perfect frames.
A miscast and out of his element Cruise gets swallowed up in all the kitschy spectacle, something he made sure would happen as infrequently as possible in the future.
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