Saturday, October 4, 2008

Man-Thing (2005)

While I've said in other reviews that not every superhero fits the "masked crimefighter" mold, it can most assuredly be said that not every comic book protagonist is a superhero. Some fight demons, vampires, or other forces of darkness. Others seek redemption, to survive in a world gone to Hell, or to merely kick the crap out of those who have wronged them. And then there's the few who are just plain monsters. No kidding, actual monsters.

In the pantheon of comic monsters, one of the most notable is Man-Thing. Making his first appearance in 1971 within the pages of Marvel's Strange Tales #1, the creature known as Man-Thing was the creation of writers Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway, and artist Gray Morrow. The character has popped up primarily in the horror and science-fiction comics published by Marvel over the last few decades, and also provided a forum for writer Steve Gerber to create the one and only Howard the Duck.

But Man-Thing has really never achieved the same level of fame that other secondary characters on the Marvel or DC rosters have garnered. It's as if Man-Thing is to Marvel Comics what someone like Ambush Bug is to DC Comics: a D-list character that has developed his own fanbase while remaining virtually unknown to the general public. Although he has remained relatively obscure over the years, Man-Thing was eventually chosen to follow in the footsteps of other, more notable Marvel characters and star in his own movie.

But, alas, there's a catch. There's always a catch. It turns out that instead of getting a theatrical run, the Man-Thing movie would premiere on the Sci-Fi Channel on April 30, 2005, before heading to DVD the following summer. Maybe you could call it a throwback to that bygone era of the '80s and '90s when Marvel's movies suffered similar fates? So let's jump into this thing and see if it turned out as bad as its "Sci-Fi Channel Original Movie" pedigree would have you believe.

Welcome to scenic Bywater, a small Florida town that's actually more swampland that civilization. Big city lawman Kyle Williams (Matthew Le Nevez) is — quite literally — the new sheriff in town, and on his first day on the job, he's already up to his neck in things to worry about. He has a mountain of missing person reports on his desk, and he's called out to break up a protest organized by a group of environmentalists led by local third grade teacher Teri Edwards (Rachael Taylor). She and her fellow tree-huggers have gathered together in opposition of Frederick Schist (Jack Thompson), an unscrupulous oil tycoon who plans to extend his business into the swamplands he has bartered away from the area's Native American community.

And that's when the mutilated corpses start turning up. The murders and disappearances are initially attributed to alligator attacks, while Schist puts the blame on Rene LaRoque (Steve Bastoni), a mysterious swamp-dwelling rogue who harbors a grudge against Schist and his company. But as Sheriff Williams's investigation continues, he is led lead to Pete Horn (Rawiri Paratene), a wise old Native American who tells the sheriff of the mystical forces that dwell within areas of the swamp his people consider holy. An ancient spirit has arisen from the swamp's murky depths, angered by the encroachment into his sacred territory. This spirit takes the form of a walking heap of muck and mire, and seeks to extract bloody vengeance from all those who dare intrude upon the swamp he protects.

As a cinematic adaptation as a character from the pantheon of Marvel Comics, Man-Thing is pretty awful. It is, as I noted in the introduction, a throwback to the "good old days" of lame yet strangely lovable Marvel movies like Howard the Duck. I'd go as far as to say that it's a good thing that Man-Thing was shuttled off to the Sci-Fi Channel and video store shelves without a theatrical release. Otherwise, it might have set Marvel's stake in the genre of comic book movies back fifteen years. But when viewed from the context of it being a low-budget B-movie, Man-Thing isn't too bad. It's actually — gasp! — kinda fun. I know, right? Who would've thought? I actually thought it was an entertaining movie. I'm not saying it was a good movie by any means. I'm just saying that I didn't hate it. Yeah, I'm as shocked as you are.

Let's talk about the direction first. At the helm is Brett Leonard, the man behind such classics as Virtuosity, Highlander: The Source, and The Lawnmower Man, the one Stephen King adaptation that was so screwed up that King himself fought to get his name taken off of it. While he isn't known for directing pinnacles of cinematic achievement, Leonard at least shows some sense of competence with Man-Thing. He manages to keep the pace moving fast, never letting us slow down to consider any inconsistencies or general goofiness that may crop up over the course of the movie.

He also manages to give the movie a certain creepy atmosphere that works in its favor. Steve Arnold's cinematography during the dark swamp scenes is a little murky at times, but other than that, Leonard manages to hold it together as well as he can. The aforementioned creepy atmosphere is assisted by the spooky musical score contributed by Roger Mason. It works well in establishing the necessary auditory environment for the movie, and I give it a thumbs-up.

Next up is the screenplay written by Hans Rodionoff, whose only other claims to fame are the direct-to-video sequels The Skulls II and Lost Boys: The Tribe. And before you start getting your hopes up, I must say that Man-Thing's script is typical of the movie's status as a B-grade monster movie that made its world premiere on the Sci-Fi Channel. Know what I mean?

Rodionoff's script isn't exactly what you would call solid, thanks to its cheesy dialogue, an overabundance of clich├ęs, and character development that's so lacking that it's practically nonexistent. These aren't really characters so much as they are caricatures of characters. There's the protagonist, his love interest, the villain, the man who knows a little too much, the red herring, and everyone else is lame cannon fodder for Man-Thing.

And the really crummy part is that Man-Thing — the character the movie is named after and the character the movie is supposed to be about — is treated almost as if he were any other movie monster, only he doesn't have as much screen time as you'd expect. We get our first fleeting glimpse of Man-Thing at the 47-minute mark, but his appearances are just shots of an arm or a leg, with his full visage remaining obscured or out of focus. He doesn't make his grand reveal until the final 23 minutes of the movie. This was probably done for both budgetary concerns and to try adding a modicum of suspense, but I guess I've been spoiled by seeing too many Godzilla movies. I will say, though, that Rodionoff's script isn't as bad as it could have been. I've seen a lot of movies with worse scripts, so Rodionoff did a better job that I'd have expected. (I know that's a lame backhanded compliment, but nobody asked you for your opinion.)

And I think I should explain what I said earlier, about why I felt that the movie is a bad adaptation of a comic book. I said that because it feels like so little of the comic book actually made it into in the movie. There's a fleeting reference to the Nexus of All Realities, and some characters are named after important writers and artists in Man-Thing's history. But other than that, there's not a whole lot to connect the comics to the movie. It's as if the filmmakers had a completely different movie lined up, and then they stumbled upon the movie rights for Man-Thing and just did a little tinkering to the script to create what we have now.

This, to me, is evidenced in the differences in how Man-Thing is depicted. In the comics, he was originally Ted Sallis, a biochemist who was transformed into a shambling, nearly mindless heap of vegetation via a combination of an experimental serum and the supernatural forces dwelling within the Florida Everglades. In the movie, Ted Sallis became a Seminole Indian who was killed and buried beneath an oil rig out in the swamp. Thanks to the supernatural nature of the swamp, his remains are shaped into a violent force of nature that is charged with protecting the endangered swamp from unwanted outsiders. I can understand if they changed the origin story to avoid comparisons to the similar origins of Man-Thing's DC Comics counterpart Swamp Thing. But were the changes that necessary?

And while the comic book version of Man-Thing would only fight if provoked, it really feels like the movie version is basically the bastard child of Swamp Thing and Jason Voorhees from the Friday the 13th movies. This is particularly evidenced by the fact that he kills with what appears to be as little discrimination as possible. At the beginning of the movie, he kills a guy who's in the midst of, shall we say, showing a lady friend a good time. Why? Your guess is as good as mine. The comic's very awesome tagline was, "Whoever knows fear will burn at Man-Thing's touch!" But I'd guess that if you retrofitted that for the movie, it would be, "Whoever enters the swamp will have their arms and legs torn off and a tree shoved up their butt by Man-Thing!" That's a little too wordy, but it's an accurate description.

Lastly is the acting, and I have to say that if you're going to cast a number of foreign actors to play Americans, make sure you have a dialogue coach to teach them the proper accents for their characters. Both the production and the casting were outsourced to Australia, and the movie's country of origin shows. I'm from the South, and I've never heard anyone speak like the people in this movie. Either the accents the actors were aiming for are way too over-the-top (as is the case with the actors playing the stereotypical racist drunks and slack-jawed yokels), inconsistent (as is the case with pretty much everybody else), or just not there (as is the case with Rachael Taylor). Seriously, Taylor is a charming actress and she does a fine job here, but the fact that I honestly can't tell the difference between her natural Aussie accent and her attempts at a Southern accent really says something.

Taylor does well enough, though, as does our hero, Matthew Le Nevez. Le Nevez's accent may not be 100% believable, but other than that, he does a respectable job as the inexperienced yet dedicated sheriff. My only problem is that Le Nevez and Taylor don't seem to have much a romantic spark together. Maybe it's just the poor way the relationship between their characters is developed within the script, but it just seems like they have four or five unromantic scenes together, then they're making out by the end of the movie. They could have at least had a fistfight or two like Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner in Daredevil. All we get out of Le Nevez and Taylor is a few arguments, her kicking him in the crotch once, and then they're all friendly with one another. It's crazy.

The rest of the cast is acceptable by B-movie standards. Jack Thompson is wonderfully sleazy as the villainous Frederick Schist. I just wish they'd gone one step further and given him the middle initial "A.," just so they could have utilized the cheesy "F.A. Schist" wordplay that appeared in a storyline involving Man-Thing back in the '70s. The movie version's corporate emblem already bears a suspicious similarity to a Nazi swastika, so what would have been hurt by naming him F.A. Schist?

I also thought Rawiri Paratene did well as the stereotypical wise old Native American, and I really liked Robert Mammone and the aforementioned director Brett Leonard as a curious cryptzoologist and the county coroner, respectively. Steve Bastoni handed in a fine performance himself, giving the character a certain mysterious charisma that made him interesting to watch despite the lack of screen time or character development. And lastly, I'll just say that John Batchelor and Ian Bless, who play a pair of greasy-looking rednecks who do the occasional bit of grunt work for the villain, probably shouldn't quit their day jobs.

So yeah, that's Man-Thing. There's not a whole lot else to say about it. If you're looking for a Marvel Comics movie on the level of Iron Man or X-Men, then Man-Thing probably isn't it. Even if you lower your standards to Elektra levels, you still might be left feeling a teensy bit disappointed. But if you enjoy cheap B-grade monster movies like Mansquito or Boa vs. Python, it could possibly be right up your alley.

I'll actually go out on a limb and say that it has just about everything a fan of B-movies could want. There's a guy who has been transformed into a gross monster, corporate malfeasance, clueless cops, lots of violence, actors you've probably never heard of, some explosions, and a girl gets topless within the first five minutes of the movie. It's basically the Snakes on a Plane of comic book movies, only without Samuel L. Jackson or any Internet buzz. If that sounds good to you, go rent Man-Thing. Though I'm presenting it with a score of two and a half stars on my Five-Star Sutton Scale, I'm still giving it a recommendation as a guilty pleasure. You monster movie fans will love it.

Final Rating: **½