Geeks are pop culture’s exotic overlords, powerful and misunderstood. Every year, the most successful movies and most popular TV shows seem as if they are powered by that geek/nerd/fan dollar, but there are scant stories that really “get” that audience when they are the subject. Usually, these efforts falter thanks to the sin of generalization, painting all who “geek out” about science fiction, comics, gaming, fantasy and the like as though they are awkward social freaks. Knights of Badassdom is no exception.
By and large, the composition of the nerds that are portrayed in film and television still seem closer to the characters in Revenge of the Nerds than they are to the people that you meet at a comic convention. Prior to its release, the Nerdist produced Zero Charisma seemed like it might right that wrong and tell a story with relatable nerdy characters, but instead, the film introduced us to another stereotypical collection of emotionally stunted nerds. What’s worse, the film presented a well-adjusted connoisseur of nerdy things — the type of nerd that is more common in real life — as a kind of poseur, essentially because he has an attractive girlfriend and other interests.
Like Fanboys long before it, Zero Charisma could have been something quite special that spoke to nerdy viewers before it settled for something less. Sadly, Knights of Badassdom joins that club as well.
Initially showcased at SDCC back in 2011, Knights of Badassdom seemed like it was a guided arrow heading right for the nerd heart with a cast that included Firefly, Game of Thrones, Community, and True Blood alumni and a plot that centered on LARPing and supernatural beasties. The initial buzz fizzled, though, as the film found itself lost in a pile of post-production quicksand and controversy, finally earning a limited theatrical run three weeks ago and a VOD release today.
The thing is, this isn’t director Joe Lynch’s cut of the film — that was one of the lasting casualties brought on by the lengthy crawl to the screen. Does that mean that we may never get to see the true genius of this film? Possibly, but it seems pretty clear that Knights of Badassdom has problems that transcend the magic of editing. Blessed with a talented cast, Knights of Badassdom mostly squanders it’s opportunity to be fresh, funny, and smart, opting instead to unfurl a lifeless “cabin in the woods” film sans the cabin.
In the film, three friends — Eric (Steve Zahn), Hung (Peter Dinklage), and Joe (Ryan Kwanten) — go off into the woods shortly after Joe gets his heart broken by his future-minded girlfriend, Beth (Margarita Levieva). Joe is a metalhead mechanic with a communications degree who used to play D&D, but he isn’t a LARPer like Hung and Eric, so it’s hard for him to see the restorative value of the trip, especially since his friends kidnapped him to bring him along. Once in the woods, the trio meet up with Gwen (Summer Glau), her cousin Gunther (Brett Gipson), Lando (Danny Pudi), and Ronny (Jimmi Simpson) — the game-master and a former D&D rival of Joe’s.
I wish I could say that Pudi turned in more than an elongated cameo, but his character does little to leave an impact. The same can be said of Glau, who has a more substantial role as Joe’s prospective love interest, a match made unbelievable by their lacking chemistry. If there is a positive, it’s Jimmy Simpson, who shines as Ronny thanks to a less is more approach with a character that could have been laughably over-done in another’s hands. It’s Ronny who pushes Eric to cast a reanimation spell to give Joe the powers that were previously held by Reginald, a LARP compatriot who was injured during a paintball attack by a group of totally needless redneck plot devices.
Of course, Ronny doesn’t know that Eric’s spell book is real or that he will summon the hell beast that will pick off game players one by one (including Joshua Malina, whose jaw gets ripped off, silencing his dulcet tones forever) before terrorizing the dozens of LARPers that are assembled in the woods. Former Mad Men actor Michael Gladis also deserves a bit of praise for his fiery speech prior to the big battle and the Kingly way that he carries himself in a small but fun role.
With the exception of Joe and possibly Ronny, there really is little effort applied to introduce us to these characters or make us feel anything for them. Blood spills, screams are heard, and things get a bit insane, but really, the effect is nil. I hate to sound cynical, but it almost feels like the film assumes we would automatically care about these characters because of the actors portraying them. Admit it, if Abed Nadir, Jason Stackhouse, River Tam, and Tyrion Lannister were fighting a succubus in the woods, you’d feel invested in the outcome, and thanks to the power of imagination and scant character development to tell you otherwise, you can approximate that with this movie. While the third act ramps up the action a bit, with Bear McCreary’s muscular metal mayhem score coming to the fore, it isn’t enough to make up for the ultimate hollowness of the overall film and a clumsy closer that will flat out piss off Tenacious D fans.
Ultimately, Knights of Badassdom feels like a film that believed its nerdbait premise would distract viewers from feeling underwhelmed by underdeveloped characters, a mostly charmless script, and lackluster visual effects. This isn’t the nerd opus of our time (it’s not even the best LARP-centric film, wassup Role Models?), it’s just a bunch of famous people playing pretend in the woods.