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Thursday, October 16, 2014

HubrisWeen 2, Day 11: Knights of Badassdom (2013)

Screenplay by Kevin Dreyfuss and Matt Wall
Directed by Joe Lynch

Ryan Kwanten:  Joe
Steve Zahn:  Eric
Peter Dinklage:  Hung
Summer Glau:  Gwen
Danny Pudi:  Lando
Margarita Levieva:  Beth / Succubus

I've been a nerd since before I knew what the term meant. I remember taking endless amounts of shit from my siblings and schoolmates for my interest in computers, watching Doctor Who and reading comic books. True fact:  When I was twelve my parents forced me to read the Chicago Tribune sports section every day for two months in an attempt to deprogram me from my nerdish ways and develop more mainstream interests. It utterly failed to take, and I still regret the lost monster movie watching time. At any rate, nerd culture has become mainstream culture in the last decade or so. The internet took over the world, the Doctor stars in the biggest cultural export the BBC's had for the last decade and The Avengers made a billion dollars in theaters. My younger self would like to kindly invite everyone from his past who got all up in his grill about liking this kind of thing to fuck off.

And yet there's one typical geek hobby from the 80s that never really broke into mass cultural acceptance. If you're like me, and I know I am, you spent about a thousand bucks on tabletop roleplaying game books, dice, graph paper, mechanical pencils, miniatures, and endless photocopying. For a few years during the reign of Saint Ronaldus Magnus Reagan, First of His Name, Dungeons and Dragons was the most famous pastime in America. It was famous because ambulance-chasing lawyers and controversy-baiting "journalists" presented it as a Satanic conspiracy that caused suicides and the rejection of the true God; but what the heck, it's neat to have a little bit of notoriety. Certainly it would have taken infernal intervention to make the stereotypical crowd of glasses-wearing asthmatics look threatening when trying to figure out their THAC0 versus an underwater sahuagin.

Well, some people who dug the hell out of tabletop roleplaying liked their hobby so much that they tried to make it more immersive. LARP (Live Action Role Play) adventures consist of people portraying their characters in a communal improv theater exercise where a director figure has written a series of challenges for them to undertake. The people who play these games spend their hobby time and money putting together costumes, foam rubber weapons, props, and makeup to portray their heroic alter egos. I've never taken that plunge myself, though it's more for a lack of opportunity than lack of desire. (And here I pour out a libation for the time a friend in Illinois wanted me to show up for one day as, essentially, the Terminator to be the villain in a Vampire:  the Masquerade LARP game where a group of super-scientific mages were going to be the antagonists rather than other vampires. I would have made the five-hour drive happily in order to pretend to be a killer robot. Sadly, the game never took place so I didn't get to say "Target acquired" and pretend to get mechanical on a bunch of Toreador or Gangrel.)

With a couple exceptions, the characters in this film are all avid LARPers who are planning to spend a weekend in the Fields of Evermore in pursuit of fortune, glory, experience points and the ineffable pleasure of doing something really weird and nerdy while surrounded by people who share their interests. And it's refreshing to see a movie where damn near every single character would have been "the nerdy one" in an ensemble comedy. Even more so to see nearly every one of them treated well by the screenplay. I don't think I've seen a movie less contemptuous of its smart, awkward, geeky characters since Real Genius. Whatever its other shortcomings may be (and they will be mentioned in full), the movie's really got its heart in the right place. At least until a demoness punches it out of its chest.

But before we get to the characters and plot, we need an exposition dump. Thank goodness! Here it is! Back in the 16th century, alchemist and mystic John Dee wrote a book of musical chants that he thought would allow him to summon angels. His methods were flawed, and what he wound up with was a grimoire that could summon demons. He tried to destroy the book, but nothing on earth could damage it once the magic had soaked into it because knowledge is power. This whole sequence is filmed as a tribute to the "check out this book that is important to the forthcoming film" prologues in every Evil Dead movie, which feels like putting on a comfortable pair of slippers when I see it at the start of a horror comedy. With that taken care of, we get an introduction to some of our main characters.

In the woods at night somewhere, a group of chanting figures in red robes are committing the kind of ritual sacrifice that Jack Chick would have you believe is what D&D players routinely carry out. It's just some kind of in-game ritual, of course, and the DungeonMaster overseeing it rules that the sacrifice failed so whatever the wizard wanted to happen won't happen. Everyone, including the victim on the altar, calls this bullshit. The DM says it needs to be a "meaningful" sacrifice or it won't work. What promises to be a real humdinger of an argument gets cut short when a group of camouflage and night-vision goggle wearing paintball enthusiasts show up and ambush the LARPers for being dorks. And let me say for a moment that all the paintballers I know would never pull this kind of move, because it's quite dangerous to fire semi-aimable pellets at someone who isn't wearing eye protection. The movie doesn't really do anything with the paintball characters except have them be assholes so I feel--as a hobbyist who hates media misrepresentation--to do what I can to balance the scales here. My own guess is that the filmmakers wanted them to be bullies more than they wanted to show another goofy run-around-in-the-woods hobby accurately.

Eric, the wizard, drops his quite cool looking old book that he was using as a prop for the "ritual"; the audience and paintballers see it fly into the air and adhere to the chief ambusher's face and only the audience sees the book teleport itself into Eric's van while the LARPers flee the assault from the gun fondlers.

Over the credits, we see Joe the auto mechanic singing metal into a screwdriver and dancing around in the repair bay. His boss threatens his job re:  singing "Your Heart Sucks My Soul" when he's supposed to be fixing cars. Just to make the day crappier, his girlfriend Beth shows up to tell Joe that they're not really good for each other any more because Joe lacks ambition and drive. She wants someone who wants more out of life than working a blue collar job, living rent-free at his friend the accidental millionaire's house and singing black metal. Brian Posehn shows up for a tiny cameo in which he corrects Beth (it's doom metal, not black metal, and it's important to know which category you're listening to). Joe gets dumped even though Beth now knows that he's out of his sludge phase and into doom, punches a car (almost breaking his hand) and drives home to a house that looks like a castle.

The house belongs to his friend Hung (although I had to consult a promotional poster to find that out he owns it; I thought it was Eric's place when I watched the film). Eric and Hung are packing props and gear into their van before going to the weekend LARP event. Joe is so shaken up, pissed and distraught that he drives over a foam rubber mace and bends its shaft. Hung is crushed. Not only is it his +3 mace, but his mother made it for him. Joe stomps inside the house and gets fucked up on Wild Turkey straight from the bottle, then grabs his guitar and starts trying to overcome his heartbroken pain. Hung and Eric walk in, hear that Joe is working on a power ballad and immediately figure out that Gwen dumped him--it would take a serious shock to get Joe writing one of those. Hung and Eric offer to drop their weekend getaway plans so that Joe isn't alone when he's at his low tide but he says he'll be all right. His friends get him drunk and massively stoned (if your girlfriend doesn't want you smoking pot but she leaves you, it's a permission slip to get baked). Joe passes out and wakes up in the back of Eric's van, wearing a breastplate over his street clothes. He's been shanghaied to the LARP event. And when he stumbles out of the van and sees all the various people in their home-built armor and weapons it serves as an introduction to the gamers' world for the audience as well.

It turns out that this weekend is the culmination of a long-running plot for the game; two opposing kings will lead their armies in a climactic battle. There's some trash-talk between the King Diamond and King Kerry--subtitled to explain to the audience that one of the generals is stuck at home cleaning the garage this weekend because he ticked off his wife, among other things. We spend some time with Ronnie the DungeonMaster, in charge of everything that's going to be happening, where he gripes about a poorly drawn map and brings his deputy game referees on a tour of the various locations where things will be happening later in the weekend. Every group of players will go on a Level Three quest before the final battle. Gwen walks by and Ronnie tries to mack on her, but the hulking Gunther peels Ronnie's hand off her instantly.

Back at the van, Joe wants to leave and Eric has the keys to the van, so that is unlikely. Eric and Hung remind Joe that he used to have a lot of fun playing Dungeons and Dragons; Joe says that was a long time ago and his friends give him a hard sell. Joe at least agrees to think it over and does like how badass Hung and Eric look in their costumes:  "You look like a Manowar cover. Without the muscles." While reminiscing about past adventures, the trio talk about Ronnie. That guy was in their old gaming group, and they didn't like him very much back then. He's grown into a controlling jerkoff who pushes his lieutenant DMs around now, so if he was like that back in his tabletop gaming days I can understand Joe's distaste.

Eric talks to Ronnie about adding a new player to the group without saying it's Joe; Ronnie agrees to let a newbie in and gets angry when he finds out who he just let back into his gaming fiefdom. Eric sasses him about things from the old days (apparently, among other things, Ronnie got walked in on while masturbating to the Monster Manual entry on succubi) and leaves with a great flap of his cloak. Joe is allowed into the game and the quests start. As a prelude to adventuring, Hung eats an ounce of hallucinogenic mushrooms and does some stretching exercises. We also get a meet-cute when Gwen and Joe smile at each other from across a parking lot lane. As a way to explain the combat rules in the game, Hung uses a pair of foam swords to synthetically beat the tar out of Joe. Gwen enjoys the display but also seems to like seeing a new person in the gaming group.

As one of the conditions to allow Joe into the game, Ronnie declares that Eric has to "resurrect" him in an in-game ritual. Eric picks a random page from his eBay-purchased grimoire and lights some smoke powder, chanting his ass off and summoning up a whirwind of fire that only Joe--inside the circle of magic sand--can see. The spell works (in that Joe can join the game), and works (in that a demoness got summoned accidentally, taking the form of Beth from the prom photo that a heartbroken Joe had in his pocket).

Eric's group sets off on a quest. It turns out that Gwen and Gunther are in their party so Joe has someone cute to talk to (and she seems to like him in return, which is neat). They get attacked by monsters and defeat them; Joe gets into the game a little bit while one of the attackers stomps off into the woods griping about how Ronnie talked him into going to an "improv event" weekend that turned out to be him wearing a neon-green monkey suit in the woods and getting pummeled by people pretending to be barbarians. "Beth" walks up to him and wordlessly seduces the guy, then tears his jawbone off mid-blowjob.

Meanwhile, the protagonists split up. Joe has to get something from the car and Gwen goes with him while Eric, Hung, Gunther and party cleric Lando go off to continue their own saga. "Beth" slinks up to a gay LARPer who isn't quite as easy to seduce as perhaps the demoness would have expected. When he turns around she punches his heart through his chest and has a lot of trouble getting her hand back through the hole in his torso (which doesn't play out as humorously as I'd hoped, but I'm guessing they only had time and budget for one take of the sequence). Joe and Gwen talk about the game, and it turns out that Gunther is Gwen's cousin, and he never breaks character so she's there as a chaperone to make sure he doesn't do anything stupid or dangerous. She likes the hobby well enough but isn't as into it as the rest of the people in their party. During an ambush Gwen takes out two ogres while Joe throws the dinky little foam rubber "knife" that he started the game with and drops the third assailant (who claims to have dodged and has to admit that he didn't when Joe and Gwen give him a look).

Another Expendable Meat gets taken out--a woman leaves her group of "sprites"--they're all wearing strap-on pixie wings and one of them complains that everyone keeps calling them fairies when that's the wrong category for what they are. "Beth" entrances the woman and kills her. Then Lando, Eric, Hung, Ronnie and Gunther run across her. Hung is tripping balls and sees what the demoness really looks like but isn't together enough to communicate it to his group. The succubus attacks the group and the movie's Cast Thinner gets applied--Hung and Lando are murdered (which I did not expect--this is a horror comedy that plays quite rough with its main cast) and Joe and Gwen find Hung's body, then get joined by Eric and Gunther. They immediately plan to contact the police--for once, somebody's doing the smart thing in a body-count horror movie. Ronnie runs off into the woods, but, to his credit, says he has to warn the LARPers about what they're up against. And since he's been a giant nerd all his life, just like most of the other characters, he knows about John Dee's music book and tells the others exactly what happened.

Meanwhile, Gwen calls the local sheriff and reports a fatal accident at the LARP game. The deputy turns out to be one of the paintballers from the beginning of the movie. He calls up his posse and they get ready to kick some nerd ass first and do some law enforcement second. While that's happening Gunther takes a real sword from the back of Eric's van and goes after the demoness. When he attacks "Beth", she just peels herself off the sword. Ronnie shows up in time to explain that Eric accidentally called forth a demoness and people are really dying (Eric:  "...Oops."). Eric picks a page from the grimoire at random and chants at "Beth", who drops to the ground and then runs into the woods. Ronnie, who can read Enochian (which the book is written in), tells Eric that he just transmuted the succubus into something called Abominog.

Joe gives Eric some bullshit "you have to man up and face real problems 'cause you're a big nerd who usually retreats into fantasy" speech that actually convinces Eric to go try and fight the monster he just summoned. Dude, IT IS A MONSTER. Go warn everyone to get away, yeah, but you're utterly outclassed here and there's no shame in not getting killed in this situation.

Across the campground, two assistant DMs get woken up by Abominog's roar and think they've overslept and have to trigger the Battle of Evermore, which they do. All the players line up on the field of battle and prepare to charge each other when a "dragon" made from a converted car and playing a tinny taped-off-TV version of Godzilla's roar shows up. Both armies attack the fearsome beast and the movie takes time to show everyone's having a really good time. The paintballers attack, harshing everyone's good time. And then Abominog shows up.

Damn near every single character in the movie gets ripped to pieces in the ensuing fight and Abominog breathes fire on the book, destroying it. Ronnie goes down near the end of the massacre and Joe figures out that singing and the gem from the book's spine can be combined to destroy the beast. He sings one of his self-penned metal songs into the foam rubber dagger, using it like a microphone, and beams from the gem hurt the demon. It turns out that Eric isn't the only summoner in the group and that Hung's soul has a mad on for the monster that killed him and so many of his fellow hobbyists. It's over, and we don't even get an "...or is it?" sting from the credits. The monster is well and truly defeated.

I wish I liked this one more than I did. It gets a lot right (I was overjoyed that there is not a single line of dialogue referencing Hung's dwarfism; everyone just accepts him as he is and brings him into the game). It shows a full spectrum of nerds, from people that are a little into the game to ones that are way, way, way too involved. Ronnie isn't the butt of jokes because he's a nerd; rather, it's because he's a controlling asshole who pushes people around. But there's a lot of tonal variations that the movie doesn't carry off quite well enough to succeed. There's "where are they now" happy ending captions for the survivors, but I'm not sure that a movie that has two hundred people die in a demonic massacre can really pull off that for a finale. Horror and comedy are two really tough genres to work in, and combining them together in a first-time movie is asking for trouble.

But the filmmakers' hearts are manifestly in the right place and I really do hope they get a chance to make something else. I'll happily check out their next film because this one's a very promising start to a career and because they know their target audience. The cast from this movie represents Deadwood, Game of Thrones, Firefly and The Sarah Connor Chronicles (with the same actress!), Community, True Blood, and gives Steve Zahn a horror movie on his resume at long last. And enough of the movie works that the missteps and inconsistencies hamstring it more than if it'd had just been a lazy "durr hurr nerds are stupid and like dumb things" comedy. I can't recommend it unreservedly but it's certainly worth your time if you're a forgiving sort. Galaxy Quest for D&D players is a fantastic concept, and if these filmmakers couldn't quite bring it off, well, I doubt that very many people really could.

This review is part of the HubrisWeen 2014 marathon. The other reviews for today’s entry are:

The Terrible Claw Reviews:  Konga

Yes, I Know:  Kiss of the Vampire


  1. What's the Deadwood connection? I can't figure that one out.

    I felt similarly. Valiant, admirable effort that just..didn't...entirely work. A big part of why I liked it is that I WANTED so badly to like it.

    I kept expecting dwarf jokes and love that it never occurred to them to do so.

    Based on your review you might enjoy Unicorn City, and I'd definitely recommend The Gamers: Dorkness Rising. I apparently five-starred it in Netflix.

  2. The head paintball jerk was Dan Dority on DEADWOOD. IMDB, man! IMDB!

    Also, thanks for continuing to read the reviews. It takes a lot of effort to get 26 of them posted in three and a half weeks.

  3. I DID imdb before posting! I just happened to do it ineffectually!

    That would be the guy with the spell burned into his face, I presume. Man, did not recognize him without the long hair and beard. Earl W Brown or something like that. He transforms...he's also the franks-n-beans brother from There's Something About Mary.

    Totally worth it. Keep up the good work.