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I Am Legend

Every day, Robert Neville (Will Smith) gets up, works out, and takes his dog for a walk. Occasionally, he might stop by the video store and continue working through the films he hasn't seen. If a canned meal won't do, he and his dog Sam go hunting - provided the lions don't get to the deer first. And at the end of the day, Neville decides whether or not this is the night he just goes ahead and kills himself.

Thanks to the miracle of modern science, Neville is the Last Man On Earth in the latest adaptation of Richard Matheson's classic novel I Am Legend. Though this film from Director Francis Lawrence changes a lot of details and owes as much to The Omega Man, it still holds true to the tension of Matheson's novel and absolutely captures the spirit. It even finds a way for the title to resonate, even though it's a different explanation.

A cure for cancer went horribly awry, killing off 90% of the world's population, with less than 1% immune. The other survivors? Turned into feral vampire-like creatures that fed on anyone they could find. Out of guilt or out of responsibility, Neville stays in New York City because it's Ground Zero, determined to find a way to cure the cure.

Lawrence paces things very well. For at least thirty minutes, Neville suffers alone. Running through his days, working on the cure and haunted by his past, Neville knows what's out there. But we don't. At night, shrieks can be heard, and he tries to drown it out with Bob Marley. That Marley has an album called Legend turns out to be little coincidence in Mark Protosevich's script, one of several surprisingly literate and subtle touches.

In a nod to The Omega Man, Neville has set up dummies along his route, populating the video store so that he can feel a little less crazy about talking to himself. It seemed cheesy in the seventies, but with Smith's nuanced performance, the mannequins become the crux of a heartrending scene.

Once the creatures, inexplicably called "Alphas" in the cast list, stand revealed, the film still hinges on Smith. Though actors such as Dash Mihok were occasionally used - or underused-- Lawrence makes the misstep of relying on CG to build the menace, phony monsters up against a real man.

Smith holds it. Though occasionally he has the script modified to fit his Big Willy Style, he drops that for the most part, subsuming himself in the agony of Neville. Because he has made this man so alive, the movie keeps holding our attention, even past obvious jokes about 2009 - there's a poster for a Superman/Batman crossover movie and gas prices have shot up over $6 a gallon. Smith's pain moves us past those nods.

It has a few flaws, most again revolving around those creatures. Neville makes an observation about their behavior breaking down, losing the ability to think, and yet the second half of the film depends on exactly the opposite happening, until such time as it needs them to be mindless again.

As a fan of the novel, I expected disappointment. Instead, it works extremely well on its own terms, luring one great actor into a cameo and pulling another performance out of Smith that reminds us that he's more than a movie star - he's an actor. I didn't even get to see The Dark Knight teaser, and I was still satisfied.


Derek McCaw

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