Legend has always been a strange movie that most people have never heard of, but if you happened to be a child of the 1980s that was lucky enough to see this film, it may be seared into your memory. It’s also quite possibly the least known movie of Tom Cruise’s career, as you’re likely to find more people who have watched ‘Cocktail’ (due to its heavy rotation in basic cable over the past several years) than to find someone that recalls Cruise appearing in a movie with unicorns and a demon with really big honkin’ horns. There really isn’t much substance or other memorable things about the film itself apart from Tim Curry’s epic performance as the Lord of Darkness, possessor of said large horns. The only other truly memorable part of the movie is when the goblins freeze the enchanted forest by killing one of the last unicorns and removing its horn.
It’s fairly clear that Legend was a product of the 1980s, as no other decade in the movies would have had such a over-the-top fantastical caricature as a major character (the Lord of Darkness). The artistry in the makeup that was created for Darkness alone is well worth the time spent screening this movie, especially if you have an appreciation for the talent it requires to create non-digital special effects. It isn’t surprising when you find out that Legend was actually nominated for a single Oscar in 1987, for best makeup as it’s held up very well 25 years later. Viewing the movie in 2012, I was struck by how vibrant and fresh (granted, cartoonish, but that was the intention) the makeup still was. Some of the earliest (and sadly, even recent) digital effects have not held up very well at all.
Legend was directed by Ridley Scott, which makes it even more unbelievable that a lot of people have never heard (or don’t remember, rather than shamefully denying outright) of the movie. I suppose the terrible acting job that Cruise submitted for this film didn’t really help matters that much. Cruise basically acted like he was an idiot with vacant eyes during the early part of the movie, and then suddenly he morphs into a lucid, strong, demon-slaying hero without the shifty eyework going on (and then after Darkness gets sent into the void, the shifty eyework comes right back). Riiiight. While I realize he’s literally portraying an idiot savant of the forest, you’d easily find a more convincing and heartfelt performance regularly being delivered on a basketball court by the Stanford University mascot, being done without the benefit of an expressive face. The wooden acting literally ruins Mia Sara’s wonderful acting debut, and the superb efforts of the aforementioned Tim Curry.
The plot is very standard for the fantasy genre. The Lord of Darkness in his underground lair orders his goblin lackeys to kill the last remaining unicorns in the enchanted forest so that night will spread across the land and be permanent. Meanwhile, Princess Lili (Mia Sara) frolics within the enchanted forest on a daily basis with Jack (Tom Cruise). When one of the unicorns is slain, a winter storm blasts the forest and Lili is kidnapped by the goblins. Jack collects a motley band of forest inhabitants (faeries, elves, and your standard fantasy creatures) in order to rescue the princess from Darkness’ lair. A plan is set forth and executed. An epic duel occurs and Darkness is banished into the void. Jack swears his undying love for Lili, and runs off into the sunset. Fin.
There have been several versions of the movie produced for the home video (and theatrical) markets, but the version most recently released was the ‘Ultimate Edition’ Blu-ray released in 2011. There was also a single-disc version of the Ultimate Edition released as a DVD with the title being amended to ‘Director’s Cut’. The latter was the disc that I viewed for this review. This version of the film has a runtime of 114 minutes versus the theatrical cut of 89 minutes. The ending is also slightly different, but the new material doesn’t really hurt the story itself. Legend has been a cult film for quite some time now and its fans clamored for the longer cut until it was released in 2002 after the discovery of old prints.
In fact, the release of the longer cut was assisted greatly by a fan of the movie, Sean Murphy. Murphy has maintained a Legend FAQ on his website since at least 1995. While I don’t share his passion, I can certainly see the appeal in enjoying Legend as a movie from the ’80s. But I can’t keep viewing the movie over and over – it grates on you after a while. Once every couple of years or even just an annual viewing is more than enough to tide me over for the long run. Legend’s a part of the Tom Cruise oeuvre, but it isn’t something I’d label must-see by any means.
You can take Legend on its merits as is, or leave it rather easily. Just viewing some stills of the makeup done on the Lord of Darkness would suffice instead of viewing the entire film, although you’d miss out on the visceral experience of the ridiculous heft of those horns. It is for this reason that I only recommend this film for completists, cult-film enthusiasts, and those who want to trace the careers of the involved parties (Ridley Scott, Tom Cruise, and Mia Sara). Legend didn’t actually ruin Mia Sara’s career – the very next movie she appeared in was her iconic role as Ferris Bueller’s girlfriend. Sadly, I’d also say that Sara’s career reached its apex with her first two films. It’s been all downhill since that point. Tom Cruise’s career only took off from this point, which also explains Legend’s obscurity. His very next movie was Top Gun. And then following that, it was The Color of Money, the aforementioned Cocktail, and then Rain Man. That’s a nice stretch of movies even with Cocktail thrown into the middle of it.
As a generic fantasy movie, Legend succeeds. But as an iconic movie, it falls flat unless it strikes a chord in you.
MPAA Rating: PG