Picture this: San Diego Comic-Con, July 2011. Director Joe Lynch premieres a hilarious trailer for his upcoming LARP-horror comedy Knights of Badassdom starring Game of Thrones’ Tyrion Lannister, True Blood’s Jason Stackhouse, Firefly’s River Tam, Community’s Abed Nadir and Steve Zahn. Steve Zahn pretty much always plays Steve Zahn in fantastic style.
I was one of those excited Comic-Con attendees who immediately got home and followed Knights of Badassdom on social media, eager for updates. I’m not into LARPing, but I do love Peter Dinklage, Steve Zahn, and Summer Glau. And Ryan Kwanten does a good comedic job on True Blood, so I was looking forward to seeing him play another jock dropped into silly fantasy tropes. Then the updates got worse and worse. The financiers were getting involved and delaying and making cuts to the movie. The movie had no distributor and when it finally did, the director’s cut wouldn’t be released. There would be no theatrical release either, only select screenings in smaller venues and digital on-demand.
So, two years after its original anticipated release date, Knights of Badassdom is getting its only potential for a wide audience on DVD and Blu Ray. While that isn’t necessarily the sign of a bad movie, my expectations were definitely lowered. Knowing what I do about the movie’s troubled past, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for Lynch’s struggles and what this movie could’ve been. However, I have to review the movie I watched.
This movie does not even put the “bad” into “Badassdom.” It takes the bad right out and leaves a steaming pile of flat jokes, boring plot, terrible effects, and so much wasted talent. Yes, Knights of Assdom is definitely more like it.
The story is a simple one: likeable metalhead mechanic Joe (Kwanten) is dumped by his girlfriend because she has grown tired of his laziness and his immature friends who live in a weirdly awesome suburban castle and live-action role play in their free time. This makes her a Bitch, just so you know (even though it seemed like a fair criticism to me, given that all we know about Joe is that he loves Beth and metal). Anyway, Joe’s best buddies — Eric (Zahn) a trust fund kid-cum-Level 26 wizard and Hung (Dinklage) an energetic party animal— decide to get Joe wasted, which leads to Joe ending up in a suit of armor at the biggest LARP tournament of the year. While trying to gain his next level, Eric accidentally summons a Succubus in the form of Joe’s ex and bloody hijinks ensue.
All this is fine set-up, except this doesn’t feel quite like the love-letter to LARPing we were promised. There’s a few cute jokes with horribly botched Old English and subtitles and some meta digs at the humbleness of the tournament’s map. Peter Dinklage subverts expectations about his stature by (pretend)kicking Joe’s ass in an almost obligatory way. And there’s a parade of familiar faces for anyone who watches too much TV: That Guy from Mad Men Who is Not John Hamm or Grown-up Connor from Angel, That Guy from House of Cards, That Guy from The West Wing, That Guy from Mr. Show (Brian Posehn, who only gets one measly scene!)
If this sounds like a lot of guys it is, but one of the few things I liked about the movie was, aside from Beth, women were mostly treated in a non-creepy way and you could tell they got a lot of authentic LARPers of all genders to be enthusiastic extras.
The special effects are subpar, which would be charming in a movie that already had some charm. Knights of Badassdom wants to be a horror comedy, but it doesn’t have the budget of a Shaun of the Dead or This is the End. That’s understandable. But the overall film looks really washed out and even the score is shoddy and lacking energy. I had just been thinking that the music reminded me an awful lot of what I’d imagine Bear McCreary’s outtakes from Starz’ pirate drama Black Sails must sound like and, sure enough, Bear McCreary is indeed composer. Since this movie is technically about two years older than Black Sails, I think Knights of Badassdom really was his first draft. Which is sort of unintentionally hilarious. And another squandered bit of geek pedigree.
Summer Glau plays the hot warrior chick escorting Joe, Eric, and Hung on their quest to defeat Demon-Beth and she’s largely pretty good, but naturally Peter Dinklage and Steve Zahn steal the show. Their characters are the only ones with any discernible personality, although Danny Pudi as Lando (another wizard) gets a few moments to shine, too. But there’s no story here. Joe’s presented as the hero, but he doesn’t really ever address the reasons that made Beth dump him - he just wants to kill the demon that’s wearing her face. There’s not even a corny message here. The hero’s journey just sort of peters out.
I know the producers made some cuts and the abundance of over-explained jokes reek of a studio trying to dumb down a subculture for laypeople. But I’m hugely skeptical that Lynch’s cut would’ve made Knights of Badassdom any better, unless it reintroduced some punchlines.
Funny jokes don’t cost your bottom line a dime so it’s supremely frustrating to watch a movie with such great comedy potential and an even better cast stumble. LARPers hoping for something by a fan for a fan won’t find enough in-jokes to satisfy and people outside the community will find the over-explanation of the LARPing world really damned tedious after the fourth joke about the parking lot of doom. The biggest fail of Knights of Badassdom is that it doesn’t know its audience.
Hint: the audience is the group of people who’d be better off watching Your Highness while sober. Take that as you like.