Unicorn, Cruise, Sara

Tom Cruise was the hottest thing in movies in the fall of ’83, on the heels of Risky Business and All the Right Moves. In that position, he could pick and choose the projects he wanted to pursue.

He chose to work with Ridley Scott, the director of such visually elaborate works as Alien, Blade Runner, and the Pepsi commercial with Don Johnson and Glenn Frey.

Well, by my watch it’s now April 1986, and Cruise’s follow-up film finally has arrived. Legend has been finished since at least summer of last year, when its release was originally set, but studio executives must have been perplexed about how to sell it.

You can hardly blame them—it’s not your average teen flick. A prologue coyly informs us that the film takes place when there was no such thing as time. It’s a magical world of fairies and sprites, of people living in the forest among the elves and the animals.

Cruise plays Jack, a hermit nature boy. He loves Lily (Mia Sara), an equally innocent country lass. The sun streams through the trees; all men are brothers; in short, your basic peace is reigning throughout the land.

Then Jack goofs by showing Lily the sacred unicorns who seem to be the source of all this goodness. This is forbidden by the laws of the elves. Worse, they’ve led the henchmen of darkness to the unicorns. These nasty goblins steal one of the unicorn’s horns, thereby plunging the landscape into a freezing world of eternal night.

It’s up to Jack and his elf friends to invade the underworld and rescue Lily, who has fallen into evil clutches, and retrieve the horn. This prompts a showdown with Darkness (Tim Curry), a huge, red, bullish character with big black horns and a nasty chuckle.

You can see that, whereas the art direction is busy and imaginative, the story is as uncluttered as can be. That’s intentional, I assume; Scott and screenwriter William Hjortsberg seem to want to tap into the traditional mythic elements, with the resourceful hero, the fair maiden, the unmitigated evil, and the talismanic unicorn horn.

They fulfill all those elements; but there’s some question, I think, as to whether that makes a good movie. At barely 90 minutes, there’s not much room for anything but story, and I missed knowing more about these characters and their connections with each other.

There’s also a lot of anachronistic dialogue—elves say, “Adios, amigo,” and a goblin tells Darkness, “Hey, can’t you take a little joke?” Technically, since the film claims to be timeless, I guess it’s okay, but it still smells like cheap laughs.

Cruise gropes for his character. Most of the other actors are dominated by Rob Bottin’s amazing makeup (a lot of viewers may watch the film and then wonder where Tim Curry was—that’s how overwhelming his costume is).

As a director, Ridley Scott remains a puzzle. He’s as good at conjuring vivid visual textures as anyone, but his storytelling ability, even with the basic legend of Legend, is variable. We may be better able to judge from his next film, which, if he hurries, could be out before the 1990s.

First published in the Herald, April 23, 1986

There’s another version, which proponents suggest is a better movie. Maybe that’s worth a look, although when push comes to shove, it’s still about unicorns. By the way, “talismanic unicorn horn” is my lost book-length poem from the Beat era, if I’m not mistaken.

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