While passing through Cairo during a sabbatical from the priesthood following World War II Father Lankester Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard) receives an offer from Semelier Ben Cross) a collector of rare antiquities to join a British archeological excavation in the remote Turkana region of Kenya where a Christian Byzantine church has been unearthed. Although Merrin has lost his religion (he left the church after being forced by the Nazis to commit atrocities against people of his parish) the skilled archeologist accepts the mission out of curiosity: The pristinely preserved church dates back more than 1 000 years before Christianity even reached the East African plain. Once there Merrin anxiously heads to the excavation sight and enters the partially buried church to discover it has been vandalized--or so he thinks; a large wooden cross has been broken and hung upside down. He also encounters Dr. Sarah Novack (Izabella Scorupco) who runs a local hospital and informs the men that the last man in charge of the excavation had gone mad and was now in a sanitarium in Nairobi. The mystery thickens when a local boy Joseph (Remy Sweeney) shows signs of satanic possession. The Turkana blame the mysterious church for the unexplained supernatural activity including a woman's delivery of a Satan-like maggot-covered still born infant. Soon tension mounts between the Turkana and the British troops stationed there.
Poor Skarsgard. To his credit the veteran actor tries his best to add a dash of distinctiveness to his underdeveloped character Father Merrin. Skarsgard (King Arthur) supplies Merrin with an air of attitude a sort of aloofness that screams I don't owe anyone anything. Armed with brute strength and fearlessness (he moves a large concrete slab without breaking a sweat and crawls through unlit basements without ever flinching) Merrin is practically transformed into sexy religious superhero. But Skarsgard even can't escape the silly dialogue that explains what is self-explanatory. "If everyone died who buried them?" Merrin asks aloud outside a cemetery where a plague supposedly whiped out the village's population. Scorupco (Reign of Fire) meanwhile doesn't inject anything extra into her rather forgettable role as Sarah a rather sweet but boring physician. Her metamorphosis in an identical looking Regan MacNeil form the original 1973 Exorcist however pumps some much needed thrills into what's otherwise lackluster horror. One of the most memorable performances comes from Alan Ford (Brick Top Polford form Snatch) who plays a perpetually drunk archeologist with a putrid skin ailment. Ford's rendition of Jeffries is so alarmingly disgusting that it makes Lucifer look like a sweetie pie.
The best thing about Exorcist: The Beginning is its deceptively promising opening set in Africa in the mid 400s. It's an eerie scene bound to make audiences' hair stand on end as a lone bedraggled priest slogs through a dry and dusty plain littered with millions of corpses nailed to upside-down crosses. But in its post-World War II setting the film suffers a setback both in storytelling and visuals. The film was originally directed by Paul Schrader who replaced helmer John Frankenheimer who died before filming began. But producers reportedly thought Schrader's version wasn't frightening enough and handed the reins over to Renny Harlin (Driven) in hopes he would turn out a more spine-chilling rendition. But sadly there is no chilling of the spine to be experienced here. Harlin uses horror film clichés to spook the audience like the faithful light-going-out-in-dark-settings scenario that the film feels more like an episode of Scare Tactics. Harlin's special effects are laugh-out-loud funny too including his inane man-eating CGI hyenas with beaming blue eyes. The beasts move about the screen as if they have no weight or substance to them. What makes those cartoony hyenas even sillier though is the fact that their presence is not needed (they're hardly scary) or even explained which pretty much sums up the film's biggest problem: The spotty story leaves too many questions unanswered. The script credited to Caleb Carr and William Wisher and later revised by Alexi Hawley is so vague it's irritating.
Jesse James (Colin Farrell) his brother Frank (Gabriel Macht) and his cousins Bob (Will McCormack) and Cole Younger (Scott Caan) come back to their farms in Missouri after fighting for the South in the Civil War. Yet when they return they find a corrupt railroad baron Thaddeus Rains (Harris Yulin) has captured the deeds to their homes to build his railroad. When Rains uses unnecessary force to get them off the land James and his comrades set out to ruin Rains and his plans and seek the ultimate revenge. They become the infamous James-Younger gang led by the charismatic James who rob banks and blow up railways. As Rains and his henchman Pinkerton (Timothy Dalton) launch the biggest manhunt of the Old West James starts to lose interest in the gang's activities as a rivalry between he and Cole springs up and as he falls in love with the beautiful Zee Mimms (Ali Larter). But can James escape justice?
Irish-born Farrell has certainly been making a name for himself especially with his buzzed-about performance in last year's indie fave Tigerland. Unfortunately he chose to make this film rather than something a little more challenging. He does a nice job playing the legendary outlaw--and he looks pretty damn good doing it--but the part doesn't require much. However all the boys including Macht as Frank James Caan as Cole Younger and McCormack as Bob Younger actually join Farrell in trying to flesh out real characters rather than cardboard cutouts--and nearly succeed. The camaraderie between them may have been carried off-screen as well. However the rest of the cast doesn't necessarily follow suit. Dalton is dull as Pinkerton with an unrecognizable accent and Larter really doesn't have a clue what she's doing although next to Farrell she looks fetching. Anyone would.
The main problem with the film once again didn't have much to do with the acting--but everything to do with the terribly clichéd script. All the great acting in the world can't help trite dialogue and predictable plot lines. And these young actors certainly can't rise above the material. When Mama James (played by the completely wasted Kathy Bates) prays her son comments "her talking to the Lord is not what worries me it's that He talks back." Clever very clever. Face it the western genre is a dying breed. Anyone remember the really bad 1990 Young Guns? The Academy Award-winning Unforgiven may have been the last great and original Western to come out of Hollywood. Or maybe they finally need to put the Jesse James story to rest. Sure the infamous character makes a compelling antihero but it's been given the big-screen treatment too many times to count. It's time to give it up.