For the uninitiated Firefly's 26th-century final frontier resembled the wild wild West with gunslingers shooting up mining towns on far-flung worlds. The show playfully chronicled the criminal endeavors of Serenity's motley crew of smugglers captained by the glib but principled Mal (Nathan Fillion). The ship also serves as home to passengers Simon (Sean Maher) and his sister River (Summer Glau). Serenity swiftly but awkwardly recounts how Simon risked his promising career as a doctor to rescue River from scientists working for the nefarious Alliance the victors in a cruel war against freedom fighters known as Browncoats (yes our good captain was a Browncoat). The Alliance turned River a young psychic into a killing machine. Now the siblings are on the run. Serenity opens with the Alliance dispatching its harshest operative known only as--yes--the Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to capture River. So Mal must put on hold his illicit dealings to protect the increasingly violent River. And that means putting Serenity--and the crew Mal regards as family--in harms way. So does it help if you have partaken of Firefly's 14 episodes? It certainly does. Whedon makes few concessions to those unfamiliar with Firefly or its crew and passengers. But if you can grasp the gist of Firefly's intricate political machinations then the flight's somewhat enjoyable.
Serenity's crew and passengers are all present and accounted for led as always by Fillion's captain of the ship. Imagine Jason Bateman playing Han Solo--that's Mal and he's one of the reasons why Firefly was such a exuberant romp across the universe. Fillion's deliciously sarcastic but he never allows Mal's sharp tongue to overshadow his wily ways and noble intentions. As Serenity adopts a more serious tone than Firefly Fillion heightens the tension by employing Mal's brashness as an unstoppable force of vengeance. Of course Mal's a pussycat compared to River. Sure she's a one-woman army but Glau doesn't allow River to devolve into a lethal weapon. With a face wracked with pain and eyes filled with sorrow Glau heartbreakingly presents a teen at odds with herself and fearful of what she may do to those willing to risk their lives for her. That includes her brother Simon who's played with little more backbone by Maher than he was in Firefly. Otherwise Serenity's remaining crew and passengers--including the brawny Adam Baldwin the steadfast Gina Torres and the righteous Ron Glass--serve the same functions as they did in Firefly. Only Alan Tudyk stands out from the crowd as Serenity's pilot and the source of much-needed comic relief. But it is Four Brothers' Ejiofor who steals Serenity. He's clever articulate and devout with a quiet and calm demeanor that hides his cruelty. How merciless is this self-described "monster" of a man? He kills children in his crusade to create a world without sin or so Ejiofor chillingly reveals. Ejiofor had better be careful that he's not typecasting himself as a brute but there's no denying he's fulfilling the promise he showed in Dirty Pretty Things.
Whedon's not one to abandon his children. He transformed the bloodless Buffy the Vampire Slayer into a cult TV series. Now he's salvaged his beloved Firefly which Fox unceremoniously canceled in 1992 after airing 11 episodes--mostly in the wrong order. But Firefly thrived on DVD so Universal's sank $40 million into a film that skillfully ties up most of the show's loose ends. The reason behind the Alliance's desperate attempt to recapture its science project gone awry is finally revealed and the answer isn't pretty. The dreaded Reavers--self-mutilating cannibals who prefer their meals alive and kicking--play a pivotal role in the proceedings. And at least one of Serenity's budding romances is consummated. The bad news though is that Serenity will make little sense to anyone who isn't a Browncoat. Serenity unfolds like Firefly's series finale and by the time you figure out what's what the day's on the verge of being saved. Worse Whedon is so intent on wrapping up everything that he neglects to retain Firefly's roguish charm. The mischievousness is gone replaced with a dark and brooding mood rarely hinted at in the TV show. It also doesn't help that Serenity makes little effort to reintroduce the crew and passengers. Whedon does a poor job of making anyone but Browncoats care about the people aboard Serenity. And that's a huge problem when death strikes Serenity. In the case of one influential Firefly character whose presence is rarely felt in Serenity a non-Browncoat just won't appreciate the enormity of this sad loss. Browncoats though will be stunned that Whedon can be so bloodthirsty. Still they will feel satisfied Whedon made these sacrifices so that Serenity would prove doggedly true to the Firefly mythology.
Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law) becomes an unwilling hero of World War II when he rises from the bottom of the Russian ranks to a coveted sniper position with the help of Soviet political officer Danilov (Joseph Fiennes). A master at publicity Danilov turns Vassili into a national hero by publishing Vassili's extraordinary sniping exploits and together they boost the flagging spirits of the Russian army as it attempts to resist the Nazi invasion of Stalingrad. But Hitler wants this city which means Vassili's got to go. Enter the celebrated Major Konig (Ed Harris) a ruthless Nazi sharpshooter sent to Stalingrad to hunt Vassili down and kill him. Oh yeah and there's this love triangle thing between Vassili Danilov and Tania (Rachel Weisz) a female soldier.
This reviewer would watch eye-candy Jude Law in a bad Internet short and as grimy and bloody and war-torn as he gets in two hours he's still mighty fine. Oh yeah and he's good as the humble somewhat bewildered Vassili. You can't help thinking though that no backwoods kid from the Urals (Russia's version of hillbilly country) is going to have the effortless grace beauty and upper-crust Brit accent that make Law more suited for roles like the one he played in The Talented Mr. Ripley. Fiennes is fine as his backstabbing best friend. Weisz as Tania is unnecessary (and please no more closeups of her having sex fer chrissakes - her love scene with Law is so over-the-top it looks more like he's killing her than making love to her. It's a particularly cruel-looking Harris though who commands the screen in a skillful performance almost solely conveyed through his eyes and facial expressions.
Why is it Hollywood used to be able to tell a good war story without a) the nonstop carnage and b) the backside-numbing two-hour-plus run time? Director Jean-Jacques Annaud (Seven Years in Tibet) proves once again that his movies are nice to look at but lack much substance - probably why a promising epic with a good cast like this was released in March instead of Oscar season. Accents were weirdly inconsistent settings improbable and characters virtually undeveloped. Good points: The opening scene reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan with all the bloodshed but less f/x is quite chilling and Annaud gives us glimpses of creativity (the showdown between Harris and Law in the broken glass-strewn factory is one of the few inspired scenes in the movie).