Will Smith may be the last man on Earth in I Am Legend, but he won't be alone in theaters.
The bankable star also won't make any new fans with this ill-paced remake - the fourth movie version, if you're counting - of Richard Matheson's classic sci-fi novel. I Am Legend is technically superb with its evocation of post-apocalyptic Manhattan, but it wavers uncertainly between stale zombie shocks and moody character study.
It's the end of the world as we know it, and I felt disappointed.
Smith plays Lt. Col. Robert Neville, a virologist who is somehow immune to the species-killing effects of a cancer cure gone wrong. That premise is a needless goosing of Matheson's bleak premise of an ordinary civilian coping with an incomprehensible catastrophe. His Neville was a hero by attrition, becoming practically a villain because he willed himself to survive.
Smith's fans expect - and get - suave courage and wisecracks. His Neville has a steady listener, a dog named Sam who is more prominent than in the book, placed here by circumstances straight from the movie hero handbook.
They cruise the now-desolate Big Apple in a variety of borrowed vehicles, listening to Bob Marley and hunting for wild game that must have escaped from zoos. They smack golf balls off the tail wing of jets and borrow DVDs from a deserted store while conversing with mannequins. You know, Will Smith kind of fun stuff, at least during daylight hours.
At night, Neville and Sam barricade themselves - too securely for maximum tension - from rabid zombies who look like extras from 28 Days Later. One crackling sequence when Sam runs away and Neville's search leads to a zombie hive provides what I Am Legend needs more of.
The monsters need more personality. Director Francis Lawrence (Constantine) skips the best thing about an earlier, retitled Matheson adaptation, 1971's The Omega Man. In that version, Charlton Heston's Neville was pursued by Anthony Zerbe's albino creature leader, whose deviation from Matheson's story was creepily interesting.
When Smith's Neville finally has someone to talk to, it's a dull mother and son (Alice Braga, Charlie Tahan) who introduce a quasi-Christian aspect. That theme dead-ends on an upbeat note that contradicts Matheson's pessimistic fantasy, but is consistent with Smith's good-guy image.
However, it is interesting that Smith's best acting in I Am Legend occurs when he does something necessarily cruel. The camera locks on his face for nearly a minute as he wrestles with what he's doing while he wrestles with the victim he's doing it to. For a brief time we see a side of Smith that isn't jiggy but scary - the kind of persona he should explore to become a bona fide screen legend.
Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.
I Am Legend
Director: Francis Lawrence
Cast: Will Smith, Alice Braga, Charlie Tahan, Salli Richardson, Willow Smith, Emma Thompson
Screenplay: Mark Protosevich, Akiva Goldsman
Rating: PG-13; violence, disturbing images, profanity
Running time: 99 min.