M. Night Shyamalan's humorless live-action Nicktoon epic The Last Airbender arrives on DVD and Blu-ray this week, providing a potent reminder of the bygone summer season, when the major studios seemed to be begging moviegoers not to beat the heat. I distinctly remember coming out of an immaculately climate-controlled June matinee of Knight and Day nonetheless downtrodden, wondering whether melting onto the Manhattan pavement would have been preferable to watching Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz black each other out in the name of protecting disheveled inventor Paul Dano's intellectual property. It turns out, however, that the small screen is relatively forgiving to The Last Airbender, as well as the June flop Jonah Hex, a comic-book Western that debuted on home video last month.
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No longer unspooling in large, not-quite-full auditoriums (the film had grossed about $132 million by summer's end), The Last Airbender has now been formatted to fit your TV screen, and thus stripped of its retrofitted 3-D. Many critics complained that the extra dimension, tacked on in post-production (as it was with late May's Clash of the Titans), left Shyamalan's film looking muddled and muddy, a hideous career killer for the one-time trick-ending specialist. A recent DVD viewing of the film—a PG-rated fantasy adventure that follows a Zen-meditating Christ figure and his overenthusiastic child-actor disciples as they "bend" different elements—unexpectedly confirmed that this is easily Shyamalan's best work in a decade.
Name directors don't always agree with established (often comic-book) properties—think Ang Lee's Hulk. But Shyamalan proves a notable exception. He seems much better suited to the terrain of complex, self-serious franchise mythology than he is to presenting lived-in scenes of contemporary life. This retroactively seems to have gotten a feature-length working out in 2004's The Village, which imagined a faux-antique community of invented traditions that has willfully sealed itself off from the urban tragedies of modern-day Pennsylvania. Kid-friendly fantasy films like Airbender often automatically traffic in leaden symbolism and signposted plotting. Not only does Shyamalan's stilted dialogue find more of a purchase in such a necessarily rule-bound exotic realm, but his other worst habit is essentially short-circuited: no need to weigh down everyday scenes with asinine iconography, as he has tended to do since 1999's The Sixth Sense, with its overly careful dispensation of the color red.
It's hard to imagine Airbender being truly savored by anyone other than pint-sized fans of the Nickelodeon show upon which it's based—entitled Avatar and subtitled The Last Airbender, a designation the film doesn't carry over for obvious reasons. But there's nothing fundamentally irksome about the way in which Shyamalan sketches out the rules of a world divided into Middle Earth-ish element-based kingdoms of air, water, earth, and fire (adherents of the latter provide the movie with its engine, sailing around the world on dark frigates, glowering from under dark hoods, and hatching evil schemes). The film ends with a standard sequel tease. A new installment isn't likely to come to pass, given the box-office performance of the original, but the prospect of Shyamalan being prevented, at least in the short term, from making another film along the stupefying lines of The Happening proves massively appealing.
Like Airbender, the steampunk Western Jonah Hex proposes one extraordinary man able to command the elements around him. Jonah (Josh Brolin), a mutilated mercenary with preternatural abilities, finishes a conversation with a coffin-extracted dead man by sprinkling him with dirt. "Dirt likes dead; dead likes dirt," Jonah rasps. Unlike Airbender, Jonah Hex lacks any semblance of blockbuster sweep. The chief virtue of the film, adapted from the DC comic by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (the gooned-out auteurs behind Crank and Gamer) and directed by Jimmy Hayward (Horton Hears a Who!), is its brevity: Factoring out the end credits, the film runs barely more than 70 minutes, making it perhaps the leanest and meanest scenery-exploding summer film since Men in Black II.
As a result Jonah Hex is no meat, all gristle, which befits its grubby post-Civil War setting rather well. The film's story is more or less boiled down to a canteen-full of bad blood between Jonah and Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich, perhaps not as magnificently weird here as he could be), Jonah's former Confederate commanding officer, who punished an act of insubordination by burning down Jonah's house, wife and son inside, and then branding his face with the initials "QT." President Ulysses S. Grant (Aidan Quinn) drafts authority-allergic Jonah to hunt down the presumed-dead Turnbull, who has gotten his hands on a top-secret proto-nuclear super-weapon, luminescent orange mini-bowling-ball projectiles—invented by Eli Whitney—with which he plans to carry out coordinated Independence Day acts of domestic terror. Megan Fox plays local prostitute Lilah, the protagonist's requisite love interest; Michael Fassbender and Will Arnett portray right-hand men.
While ice quite literally triumphs over fire in Airbender, the comically gruff antihero of Jonah Hex appears condemned to forever ride the hellfire-scorched terrain of the West. As played by Brolin, Jonah seems to face the beating-down sun as just another punishment for his sins, wearing a permanent wince in its presence. Perhaps this pithy, loopy movie will play better as the days get colder and shorter.
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