Judge Josh Rode's origins are in the Midwest which, in January, feels about as far away from the sun as Mars.
It is the bane of moviegoers everywhere, the place hope goes to die, where expectations are crushed before they even have a chance to bloom. It is the dreaded (insert overly-dramatic music cue) Movie Based on a Video Game!
Hard-core gamers tend to latch onto their favorite titles like pit bulls on a steak, and on each game's online forums the one inevitable topic that gets asked is, "Who would play these characters in a movie?" It seems a match made in Commercial Heaven: a ready-made audience, already intimately familiar with the world and the characters, who have demonstrated a willingness to plop down oodles of cash for anything having to do with their favorite games.
Perhaps this is why most video-game-inspired movies fail; the people who produce them figure they will make money regardless of quality. Maybe it's because the games' weak storylines are exposed when the interactive component is removed. Whatever the reason, video game movies are seldom worth their time investment.
Enter into the fray Red Faction: Origins, based on a successful series about a Martian mining colony fighting an array of corporations that keep wanting to enslave the miners. The game's biggest claim to fame is the ability to destroy everything. There's a sniper on that tower? Knock down the tower with your sledgehammer. None of the games in the series seem to scream, "Make a movie out of this!"
Add the history of video-game-movies to the questionable necessity of this particular series becoming a film, and you seem to have a recipe for disaster. But, in fact, Red Faction: Origins is a very entertaining movie.
Okay, so the story isn't particularly original. Jake Mason (Brian J. Smith, Stargate Universe), the son of hero Alec Mason (Robert Patrick, Terminator 2: Judgment Day), is charged with recovering tech supplies from the remains of a crashed ship. Someone beats his team to the site, however, and while pursuing the interlopers he discovers that his supposedly long-dead sister might be alive and well…and on the bad guys' side. So he breaks regulations to find her, and thus puts himself right in the middle of an unanticipated battle. You've seen it all before.
The thing that really makes Red Faction: Origins stand out is the engaging cast. Everyone is committed to the film, despite the fact that they shot it in Bulgaria in the middle of winter (according to the commentary, the warmest it got was 10 degrees Fahrenheit). Smith adds nice depth to what could have been a cookie-cutter "tough soldier goes solo commando" performance. Tamzin Merchant (Jane Eyre) does pretty well as the long-lost sister, although the movie would have carried a heartier emotional depth had she been able to show more personal conflict when it came time to choose between her nearly-forgotten brother and the man who basically raised her. The real standout is Danielle Nicolet (The Starter Wife) as Tess, the chatty, hyper-intelligent tech expert who insists on accompanying Mason on his journey. She steps very close to the precipice of "really annoying," but fortunately never falls off, and thus becomes the best part of the show.
Red Faction: Origins has an early-Joss-Whedon feel. There are the slightly-over-the-top villains (one holds a pistol to a subordinate's head just because the subordinate wanted to get clarification on an order; the other sports an eyepatch). We have the "ragtag outfit versus clean-cut organization" motif (emphasized nicely by the use of handheld cameras in the Red Faction camp, but tracks and stationary cameras in the enemy camp). And, of course, there's a nineteen-year-old girl who can kick anyone's butt.
The show was made for television, and first aired on the Syfy channel, so there are commercial breaks, complete with pseudo-dramatic scene endings. The budget wasn't huge, so the production values aren't the highest in the world. There is noticeable green-screen work and set pieces that sometimes seem straight out of old Star Trek: The Original Series episodes, but they pass quickly and aren't a distraction. The anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer is clean of grain or debris. Colors aren't deep, but that actually fits the bleak, cold setting. The 5.1 Dolby Surround does an adequate job. The surround speakers aren't utilized much, as you might expect from a television show, and you might as well just use the subwoofer as a footrest. Extras include the aforementioned commentary track, which is insightful and fun to listen to, as well as an interesting "making of" feature and a short photo gallery.
Before I go too far with my praise of Red Faction: Origins, I will concede the possibility that my enjoyment may have been tainted by the low expectations I had going into it. Although I've compared it to Joss Whedon's work, it comes nowhere close to Firefly, Whedon's television sci-fi masterpiece, in any category. Still, the chemistry between all of the cast members is genuine, and makes Red Faction: Origins one of those rare shows that is greater than the sum of its parts.
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