I’m old enough to remember the rise of tabletop role-playing brought by “Dungeons and Dragons”. The popularity of the game (and the personal infighting of the authors) led to many versions of the game, multiple incompatible editions and dozens of imitators. Public confusion about the game led to accusations of demon worship and dumbass TV movies. Despite all this, my friends and I poured our imaginations (and meager allowances) into it.
In retrospect, that the game was so broken may have been a large part of the allure. Sure, it was complex – that kept away the people that we preferred not to deal with in the first place – but it was also versatile. We’d argue about the rules, toss those we didn’t like and make up our own. At every level of the experience the game offered awkward kids power. Imaginary power, to be sure, but power nonetheless. We created the world, we controlled it and we decided how it worked.
These two movies represent separate, but similar, evolutions of my childhood obsession. The first celebrates the transition from the tabletop to online multiplayer. The second to the more physical experience of live action role-playing (LARPing). Both embody such a deep-seated respect for the things I used to hold dear that I couldn’t help having a ton of fun with them.
Rise of the Fellowship
Comedy, 92 Minutes, 2013: “Rise of the Fellowship” on IMDB
Randall and his friends are gaming geeks and Tolkien nerds. When they’re not playing “Lord of the Rings Online” they’re getting their asses kicked by the popular kids for talking about it. When the opportunity to play in a high-stakes national competition arises they leap at the chance… until Randall is framed for drug possession and banned. When evidence of his innocence comes to light they begin a once-in-a-lifetime quest to clear his name and win the ultimate prize.
The script tries, but unfortunately fails, to mash-up several archetypal story lines. Characters serve double – and sometimes triple or quadruple – duty in service of overly convoluted plots threads. The group is bullied by jocks who are later converted into gaming rivals. Randall’s brother has a similar arc. Happy hippies become thieves and warriors then finally long-lost friends. Randall’s father, whom we never once meet, is an essential keystone to the plot one moment, then forgotten about in the next.
The movie forces several parallels with “The Lord of the Rings”. Some, like equating Twinkies with lambas bread, are cute and work well enough. Many others, however, feel contrived, messy and often just silly. Most damning, the resolution isn’t the result of dedication or work on the part of the heroes. Instead it’s a boiling stew of weird reveals, coincidences and bizarrely specific character connections. A heavy exposition dump grinds the entire movie to a halt right before a sad, plodding climax that relies too-heavily on unexciting in-game “Lord of the Rings Online” footage.
So, the movie is broken. It’s also a lot of fun. It fails squarely into that amateur, low-budget, “labor of love” zone that excuses it from all kinds of sin. After all, Tolkien himself overused deus ex machina! If a random giant eagle can save Gandalf, why can’t a random hippie save Randall?
Knights of Badassdom
Comedy/Fantasy, 86 Minutes, 2013: “Knights of Badassdom” on IMDB
Joe (Ryan Kwanten [IMDB]) got dumped by his girlfriend because he refused to give up on his dream to front a “Doom Metal” band. His best friends, Eric (Steve Zahn [IMDB]) and Hung (Peter Dinklage [IMDB]) drag him to a LARPing (live action role-playing) event to get his mind off his girl. That turns out to be pretty easy when Gwen (Summer Glau [IMDB]) joins the group. Eric decides to spice things up by using a real spellbook (that he bought off eBay) and accidentally conjures up a murderous succubus from hell.
The movie succeeds largely because of the talent and likability of its cast. Most are successful television veterans and several are genre legends. None of them are likely to claim this as their best work, but all of them put in laudable effort. More importantly they seemed to have a helluva lot of fun doing it.
That’s good because the actual movie… kinda blows. There’s an obvious love of classic role-playing games and some laugh-out-loud hilarious inside jokes for old tabletop gamers. There’s also a healthy, but warm, sense of how silly LARPing can be. As the story progresses, unfortunately, the whole thing starts to creak under its own weight. To fit more LARPing gags the entire demon story line is oddly sidelined. When it does finally surface, events rely too heavily on coincidence, character flaws and terrible decisions. Ultimately, the ending wanders off course, attempts to correct and then slides off into a weak “where are they now” montage.
So, this move is also broken. This movie is also a lot fun. The excellent cast may have had to drag it up into mediocrity but their effort paid off. It’s stupid, but stupid fun.