- Battle: LA got absolutely eviscerated by a number of prominent movie critics, but after catching it last weekend, the truth is ... it's not that bad. In fact, as compared to some recent alien invasion flicks that were truly awful and abysmal (Skyline, anyone?), Battle LA gets a surprising number of things right. Yes, the movie suffers from some crippling problems - namely, its overly-shaky, less-than-coherant direction - but at the end of the day, it rallies in its third act and delivers some legitimately rousing and entertaining action and thrills. Plus, the movie is anchored by Aaron Eckhart, who is perfectly cast as the gruff, stoic, and superhumanly-determined leader of a squad of anti-alien GI's. Eckhart's performance in Battle LA reestablishes his chops as a true badass -- making you think that any and all superhero flick casting directors had better rethink their laundry lists of go-to action-hero actors, because Eckhart might be their man for the job.
The thing with Battle: LA is that it takes a while to really rev up. And yet, even during its introductory, "gathering of the team" scenes, director Jonathan Liebesman inexplicably subjects the audience to an unsteady, motion-sickness-inducing shakycam - even when the action onscreen solely consists of talking heads. It just reeks of Liebesman trying way too hard to artifically inject the film with some sort of you-are-there edginess. Instead, it's almost unintentionally funny. I mean, action-scene shakycam during dialogue-driven intro scenes? Really? All I can say is that five minutes into Battle: LA, I was prepared to hate it. And for a while, I found myself agreeing with some of the criticisms I had read from the likes of Roger Ebert, who blasted the film for its flimsy plot, characters, and messy, shoddily-choreographed action. For a while there, it was hard to argue.
But there is a strangely effective sort of pacing at work in Battle: LA. The movie plays out like one of those WWE wrestling matches where the good guy gets pounded on for most of the match, only to stage a late, miraculous comeback. Because for a while, Battle: LA really beats up its characters, and in turn, the audience. Within moments of the movie's intro, things are already looking incredibly bleak for humanity. A race of mysterious, warlike aliens have invaded earth, and they haven't bothered to talk or even make demands. They just want to straight-up conquer earth and kill all humans (there's some speculation that they're after our water supply, but it's never delved into with much detail). When the movie begins, a number of major cities are already S.O.L., and so the stage is set for the US Army to make a final stand in Los Angeles, where we later learn one the E.T.'s key central command units is located. Aaron Eckhart's character is the cliched (yet reliably awesome) army vet who was about to retire before the $%#& hit the fan, and who now must knuckle-up and go on one last mission for all the marbles. And it's because of the badassery he displays that we believe his unit has a snowball's chance in hell of making a dent in the seemingly unstoppable alien armada. For much of the film, Eckhart's squad just gets owned. It's almost funny, because since most of the characters sort of bleed together, it's hard to keep tabs on who lives and who dies. After about 45 minutes, I found myself surprised that anyone was still standing. There's not much ebb and flow - for scene after scene, the humans get whooped. Some of the confusion is also due to that pesky shaky-cam. Some of the action sequences are all about creating that sense of immediacy and gritty realism, but the directing style mostly detracts from the fun - with many of those first and second act sequences ending up as more headache-inducing than adrenaline-pumping. Utilizing shakycam means walking a fine line between purposely disorienting the audience and yet making sure to capture and give emphasis to the key action beats. I think that Battle: LA often fails at the latter, to the point where it sometimes feels like you're seeing a random jumble of action rather than actually being told a story.
Again though, Battle: LA makes a late-game rally, and at some point in the latter half of the film I found myself re-invested in the action. The characters had been wittled down to the essentials, and Aaron Eckhart was given the opportunity to give a rousing speech or two to give the movie a much-needed shot in the arm - and some semblance of humanity. This is, afterall, a war movie - and war movies need some sort of mission statement or else ... what's the point? Finally, we had a clear mission and a clear rallying cry -- Battle: LA was back in business. And I give the movie credit - it's final half hour or so is genuinely pretty kickass, with some well-put-together action scenes and a sense of urgency and coherancy that other segments of the movie lacked. The movie tightens up and narrows its focus on Eckhart, and much to my surprise I was rooting for him to overcome the odds, execute his risky, make-or-break last-ditch plan, and kick some alien tail.
Battle: LA ends on a send-'em-home-happy high note, and while I went in worried that this would be a bomb, I came away thinking it came surprisingly close to being da' bomb. Still, the movie was a long ways away from reaching its full potential. A bigger, better, more imaginative backstory and mythology would have gone a long way towards building out the world of the film. Too much of the movie seems to exist sans larger context, and it makes the film feel too insular and bland. I think of something like the book World War Z, where author Max Brooks went to such great lengths to paint a global portrait of his story of man-vs.-zombie warfare, and I wonder why Battle: LA seemed to put in such comparitively little effort at world-building. I also had some major issues with the direction / action choreography. Luckily, the movie tightened up at crunch time, but I think the shakycam style is only about 50% effective and 50% detrimental. Finally, Aaron Eckhart knocks it out of the park in this one, but the rest of the cast has little to do and there are very few other characters that are interesting or stand out from the pack.
At the end of the day, I do think that Battle: LA is a reasonably solid effort and that it has some legitimately kickass moments. To completely dismiss it speaks more to the inherent biases of certain reviewers than it does to the actual quality of the film. By no means a great work of cinema, but an entertaining action flick nonetheless.
My Grade: B