‘Badassdom’ turns bloody bland

A lot of ink has already been spilled over the Spokane-shot horror comedy “Knights of Badassdom,” most of it before anybody had seen a single frame of the finished film. Its trailer premiered to much fanfare at 2011’s San Diego Comic-Con, it developed a fervent online following sight unseen, and it became embroiled in behind-the-scenes drama when director Joe Lynch made cryptic comments suggesting that the final cut had been wrested from his control by producers.

But despite all the attention it’s stirred up, the version of “Knights of Badassdom” being released in theaters this week is mostly disposable, a movie driven by a promising concept that’s never fully realized. In order for movies like this to really be memorable, their premises need to be pushed to (or maybe even beyond) the point of over-the-top inspiration, and this one plays it pretty safe. There are moments when we can sense a weirder, wilder comedy just beneath the surface, but it never breaks through.

Consider, for instance, the world of Live Action Role Players (or LARPers) in which the movie is set. It’s the kind of backdrop that could anchor a killer comedy (it was partially utilized in the funny 2008 film “Role Models”), but the movie doesn’t really develop a definite attitude toward the LARPing community. In order to really sell this kind of material, you must either take it deathly seriously or not seriously at all, but “Badassdom” doesn’t really do either, sometimes snickering at its characters, other times regarding them with reverence.

The plot has the germ of a wonderful idea at its center. A wannabe heavy metal singer named Joe (Ryan Kwanten) is dumped by Beth (Margarita Levieva), who thinks he’s squandering his potential. His roommates Eric (Steve Zahn) and Hung (Peter Dinklage) think they know what will mend his broken heart, getting him high and dragging him (literally) to one of their LARPing events, grandiosely titled the Battle of Evermore. Joe has no interest in participating, but he changes his mind when he meets a beautiful LARPer Gwen (Summer Glau), and Beth’s existence seems to fade from his memory.

That is until Eric casts a spell that conjures a succubus from the depths of hell that rampages through the forest in Beth’s form. The rest of the film, set deep in the woods of Riverside State Park, is like a crazy, blood-soaked LARP scenario come to life, as the she-beast brutally devours the players one by one, a formula that grows tedious as soon as it’s introduced.

The business involving the succubus weighs down what might have been an otherwise original movie, and I wonder how “Knights of Badassdom” would have played out had the demon disposed of it entirely. Imagine instead a sincere, character-driven comedy that focused on the LARPer lifestyle – the devotion it requires, the logic behind it, the significance of each character’s medieval alter ego. It’d be a totally different film, but it might have been fresher, and it would have brought us deeper into the role playing world and better utilized the considerable talents of its terrific cast.

My guess is that the filmmakers assumed “Badassdom” would acquire cult status right out of the gate (I don’t think it will), and on paper it certainly seems to have been pre-packaged for that kind of legacy. But it doesn’t have the unhinged lunacy of all great midnight movies, and the premise suggests more energy than it eventually delivers. Maybe “Knights of Badassdom” will hit the sweet spot for audiences with very specific temperaments – if it sounds like the kind of movie you’d love, you’ll probably love it – but to me it feels like a missed opportunity.

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