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Army of Darkness (1992)

by on 2010/03/10

The first time I intended to critique Army of Darkness, I waited too long after seeing it; I couldn’t do justice to the review without the recall.  So I tried to re-watch the movie but noticed something odd:  I kept pausing it, distracted by the thoughts of things I suddenly “needed” to do.

I felt hungry and needed a snack.  I felt cold and needed a blanket.  I wondered whether my tax software needed patching.  I wanted to look up the name of the guy who played the Tick.  Not the cartoon, but the live-action one.  That guy who was on Seinfeld. Hmmm.  Patrick Warburton?  Yeah, that’s him.  Where else did I know him from?  Wasn’t he on Family Guy too?  Yeah, I’m pretty sure —

And then I realized what was happening.  I could force myself to screen Sam Raimi’s cult classic but — no matter how over the top it got — it just couldn’t hold my attention.

Army of Darkness recounts the “fantastic” adventure of discount superstore salesperson Ash.  Actually it’s his third adventure, the first two being Evil Dead and Dead by Dawn, though you won’t need to sit through them to misunderstand this one.  Ash is magically transported about seven hundred years into a medieval English past, along with his car, a shotgun, and a chainsaw in place of his missing hand.  He blunders his way through the movie, which concludes in a manner dependent on the specific version you watch.

Army of Darkness is less what it’s about, and more how it’s about it.  On both viewings, I was struck by how easily this film could be described to a studio executive in high-concept cross-speak.  (You’ll have to provide your own sales-pitch gestures.)

“Trust me, J.J., you’re gonna love this!

“It’s . . . The Wizard of Oz meets Dawn of the Dead!

“It’s . . . The Three Stooges and The Holy Grail!

“It’s . . . John Carpenter’s Muppet Movie!

“And . . . it’s The Lord of the Rings on a Princess Bride budget!”

I could go on, but I won’t.  You probably get the idea.  Army of Darkness meets all those criteria, but emerges as much less than the references suggest.  Its influences refuse to coalesce, and the result is a lost and lumpy, goofy mutant.

On top of all that, while the tale and its telling are muddled, the characters are unfathomable for entirely different reasons, particularly the lead role.  I’ve seen Bruce Campbell in other parts I enjoyed but, here, Ash is an unpleasant mixture of inept, unwise, and bipolar.  Compare him with Snake Plissken, another anti-hero protagonist from the Escape movies.  Snake is unpleasant, yes, but at least we understand him.  Perhaps Ash’s challenging inconsistency suggests the human condition of the stranger in a strange land? Probably not.  I doubt the script is even familiar with most of the words in such a sentence; its big word quota is pretty much filled by “Necronomicon”.

And so we come to the end of a review I dreaded having to compose, and feared I’d never complete.  Initially, I was cautiously optimistic about this much-loved geek movie.  I’m a fan of some other Raimi films (particularly Quick and the Dead and Spider-Man 2), but less enthusiastic about others (Darkman and Spider-Man 3, I’m looking at you).  Unfortunately, for me, this movie falls deep into the latter lands.  Army of Darkness is less its own movie than it is the catastrophic collision of several other, better ones.  Sometimes, the Jack of all trades really is a master of none.

* * *

Rated R for violence and horror

81 minutes

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