Army of Darkness, Brett Gipson, Brian Posehn, Chillerama, cinema, co-writers, Danny Pudi, demons, Dungeons & Dragons, evil books, fantasy vs reality, film reviews, films, horror-comedies, horror-fantasy, Jimmi Simpson, Joe Lynch, Kevin Dreyfuss, Knights of Badassdom, LARPers, live-action role playing, long-delayed films, male friendships, Margarita Levieva, Matt Wall, Movies, Peter Dinklage, practical effects, role-playing games, Ryan Kwanten, Sam Raimi, special-effects extravaganza, Steve Zahn, succubus, Summer Glau, summoning demons
Ever since audiences were greeted with the blatant lies that were Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984) and Leonard Part 6 (1987), we can all be forgiven if we take movie titles with a grain of salt. After all, filmmakers will try literally anything to get butts into seats: hell, Chariots of Fire (1981) didn’t feature one flaming horse-drawn vehicle, let alone multiple ones! The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)? Sound like a lot of bragging to me. Troll 2 (1990)? Trust me: the connection to the original extravaganza is, shall we say, tenuous at best. By this point, our eyes should be much more open: fool me twice and all that jazz.
For this very reason, Joe Lynch’s Knights of Badassdom (2013) should send up immediate signal flares: after all, the guy’s got the temerity to call his OWN characters “badass”…shouldn’t that be our job? I don’t know about you but I rather resent being force-fed someone else’s definition of “badass.” You see, I have pretty damn high standards as far as “badassdom” goes, standards which poor Joe can’t possibly hope to match. Should I be required to lower my own standards of what does and does not constitute “badassness” simply to satisfy his own misguided vision of his own creations?
Have no fear, fellow travelers: I’m here to tell you that, for once, there’s quite a bit of truth in this here advertising. While we may quibble over the degree, it’s more than fair to say that Lynch’s Knights of Badassdom is, indeed, quite badass. In some ways, he’s turned in the Army of Darkness (1992) sequel that folks have been clamoring about for the past couple decades: merging ridiculously over-the-top fantasy elements, deliciously snarky dialogue and some genuinely surprising gore effects, Knights of Badassdom is a real treat for those genre fans who like their fare loud, goofy and…well…badass.
After a nifty opening sequence that establishes a pretty cool mythos for a cursed medieval hymnal, we’re jumped into what appears to be a Satanic ceremony before finding out the fell truth: these folks be not of the olden times but, rather, are slightly more modern creations: LARPers. For those not in the know, LARPers (Live-action Role Players) are folks who take a look at tabletop gaming like Dungeons & Dragons and think, “This would be so much cooler if it were real.” To that end, LARPers dress in costume and assume the role of various characters (similar to role-playing games) in order to conduct large-scale “battles” and campaigns during the weekend: think of it as Lord of the Rings fans conducting Civil War reenactments and you’re in the right ballpark. While I’ve never actually LARPed, I’ve known a fair amount of folks who have and I can steadfastly vouch for the fact that the pastime is more than ripe for a little gentle satirization. Displaying not only a deft touch with skewering fantasy and LARP clichés but also a genuine fondness for his characters, Lynch turns what could have been a case of “Look at those dumb nerds” into something more traditionally heroic.
In short order, we’re introduced to our three main characters. The defacto protagonist, Joe (Ryan Kwanten), works in a garage, fronts a doom-metal band and has just written a rather intense “love song” for his girlfriend, Beth (Margarita Levieva), who promptly dumps him for being too “aimless.” Joe best friend, Eric (Steve Zahn), is a LARP obsessed millionaire who lives in a fake castle with the third member of their group, Hung (Peter Dinklage), another philosophy-spouting, perma-stoned LARPer.
Under the guise of helping Joe get over his fresh breakup, Eric and Hung get the poor fellow so drunk and high that he passes out, only to wake up somewhere in the woods, in full battle regalia: that’s right, in the spirit of best friends everywhere, Eric and Hung just shanghaied their friend and intend to force him to participate in their hobby as a way of taking his mind off his problems. Never mind the fact that Joe not only doesn’t participate in LARPing but actively mocks it and you have a sure-fire recipe for success, right?
Once there, we meet more of the rogues’ gallery including Ronnie (Jimmie Simpson), the batshit game master; Gwen (Summer Glau), the gorgeous warrior who kicks ass and takes names, her borderline autistic cousin Gunther (Brett Gipson), who’s so far into the game that he doesn’t seem to realize they’re actually playing a game and Lando (Community’s Danny Pudi, in a great role). If you guessed that Joe would end up falling for Gwen, you’ve either seen your fair share of these kinds of films or are mildly psychic. If you further guessed that Ronnie would be holding a grudge against Joe for some long-past slight (in this, giving his character “magic syphilis” during a heated Dungeons & Dragons session) and plans to get his revenge during the game, you’re really starting to scare me, man!
In order to appease the tyrannical Ronnie, Eric, Joe and Hung must perform a “resurrection” ceremony for Joe’s character, a ceremony which Eric opts to undertake using a non-regulation spellbook that he managed to get his hands on. As luck would have it, the spellbook is actually the very same cursed text from the opening (fancy that!) and Eric’s innocent “mumbo-jumbo” actually has a pretty dire outcome: he inadvertently calls forth a demonic succubus, a creature which assumes the face of Joe’s ex- as some sort of cruel cosmic joke. At first, no one is the wiser, as the succubus quickly and quietly works her way through the LARPers, ripping off a jaw here, yanking out a heart there. When tragedy strikes close to home and the truth of the situation is revealed, however, our intrepid crew have no choice but to spring into action and save their fellow role-players (and the world, presumably). As they’ll all come to find out, however, it’s one thing to wear armor and swing a plastic sword on the weekends but a whole other ball of wax to actually square off against ancient, all-powerful evil. Lucky for them, Eric always has a few real swords hanging around and it looks like it’s finally time for him to get…medieval.
Full disclosure: I really dug this film and, in time, might even come to love it. There’s such a gonzo, hyper sense of energy and fun to the proceedings that it’s impossible not to become sucked up in the silly spectacle of it all. Similar to Sam Raimi’s classic Evil Dead films, Lynch manages to come up with a perfect mixture of fantasy, humor and horror, with no one element really dominating the others, although the overall tone is almost always light and goofy. That being said, there are some genuinely strong horror moments here and some extremely well-done practical effects (the finale involving the monstrous demon and a mechanical dragon is a real showstopper) that definitely reminded me of the aforementioned Army of Darkness, right down to the mysteriously alive, sinister book at the heart of everything.
Perhaps the most critical element in a film like this (aside from a good script) is the cast and Knights of Badassdom manages to knock this one out of the park. While Zahn and Dinklage will probably be the most well-known names here, they’re ably matched by the rest of the cast. Kwanten is a great reluctant hero and his transition into armored asskicker by the film’s final reel is unbelievably satisfying. Glau, perhaps best known as River in Joss Whedon’s cult-classic Firefly series, makes the most out of a role that could’ve been more about the “male gaze” than character development: she never seems overly sexualized, however, and is never presented as a shrinking violet or “damsel in distress,” which is incredibly refreshing. Serving as glowering, silent counterpart to Glau’s sarcastic Gwen, Brett Gipson is pretty great as Gunther, who may or may not actually be a barbarian: he gets so many fist-raising moments in the film’s final 30 minutes that he nearly threatens to steal the show from the main characters.
Without a doubt, however, special recognition must be given to the amazing Jimmi Simpson, who makes Ronnie such a completely unforgettable character. Simpson, a remarkably gifted comic actor, has such a perfect sense of timing and delivery that virtually everything he says managed to provoke a laugh from me. Ronnie is the kind of character who could easily have become insufferable: he’s a complete jackass, an ineffectual moron who’s so myopic as to make Michael Scott seem like a major tactician. Despite this, however, Simpson is just so damn good that I found myself rooting for him despite of his caustic personality. As someone who’s head-over-heels for It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, I’ve always felt that Simpson’s portrayal of the astoundingly weird Liam McPoyle must stand as one of the best comic creations of the past 40 years: his performance as Ronnie isn’t quite as legendary but it’s not bringing up the rear by much, either.
In any other situation, a film like Knights of Badassdom would have me worshipping at the feet of the filmmakers but this is, unfortunately, the one area where I feel a little qualified in my support. While Knights of Badassdom is only Lynch’s second film, it was technically his debut: started in 2010 and only completely wrapped-up last year, KOB would definitely seem to indicate even greater things on the horizon. The immediate follow-up, however, Chillerama (2011), easily stands as one of the single worst films I’ve seen in my entire life, hands down. An anthology film, Chillerama features a collection of worthless shorts by filmmakers that should definitely know better (Adam Green, in particular): Lynch’s short, even when compared to the others, is really awful. Truth be told, if Lynch hadn’t been behind Knights of Badassdom, I would have completely written him off after seeing Chillerama (which I saw before screening Knights). As it stands, I really have no idea where he’s going from here: his next feature could either be an unmitigated classic or the equivalent of cinematic coal in the stocking…only time will tell.
At the end of the day, however, the only thing that really matters is what’s currently in front of us: Knights of Badassdom. On this regard, I was completely blown away. Basically, Lynch’s film is the epitome of crowd-pleasing. This is the kind of movie where the LARPer teams have names like “The Norse Whisperer” and “The Department of Gnomeland Security,” where the final showdown involves fighting a demon with the power of metal (the musical style, not the material) and various locations are named after icons of nerd-culture (my favorite being The Temple of Syrinx, which actually made me do a spit-take). It’s a film that starts out good and becomes gradually better until it’s final 30 minutes are just about as good as it gets, period. It’s the kind of film where characters look into the distance, utter pithy quips and remind us of why we go to the movies in the first place. Knights of Badassdom is the kind of film where you get a line like, “You speak Enochian but can’t drive a truck?!” one minute and “I’m going to stop saving your life if you don’t show me some fucking respect!” the next. It’s a complete blast and, quite possibly, some of the most fun I’ve had watching a film in ages. Joe Lynch’s Knights of Badassdom is, for lack of a better word, thoroughly “badass.” In the immortal words of that other wise-crackin’ badass: “Come get some.”