While superheroes have conquered the box office, studios still find themselves struggling to adapt video games into films. Although the Resident Evil series has made the transition (well, depending on who you talk to, anyway), adaptations of Halo and Bioshock have stalled in development at major studios. Recently, studios have come up with a new idea: tie-in films that play into the story of the games, released direct to home video. Although the track record of these projects has been more miss than hit, Red Faction: Origins is a fairly entertaining little movie.
Taking place in the gap between the games Red Faction: Guerilla and Red Faction: Armageddon, Red Faction: Origins follows Jake Mason (Brian J. Smith), son of Red Faction hero Alec Mason (Robert Patrick), who helped lead the colonists against the Earth Defense Force in a successful bid for freedom years earlier. Mars is split between the Red Faction (miners) and Marauders (humans that side with the game's native Martians), whose cultures and customs clash. While investigating a piece of a crashed EDF ship in a neutral zone between the two colonies, Jake is alarmed to encounter a group of mysterious soldiers in white fatigues stealing pieces of the ship, and even more alarmed to discover that one of the soldiers is Lyra (Tamzin Merchant) -- his sister, long presumed dead.
Red Faction: Origins was produced for the SyFy Channel, which, frankly, doesn't have a great track record when it comes to quality original entertainment, but "Battlestar Galactica" director Michael Nankin lucks out with both a talented cast and a quality screenplay (by Andrew Kreisberg) that packs a good amount of character development. Alec's wife was a Marauder, and when Jake was very young, she was murdered and Lyra was taken, by people Jake and Alec believe were other Marauders who objected to the union. Jake jumped to safety, leaving his sister behind to be taken, and that guilt motivates his actions. Cleverly, Smith plays that guilt more like a responsibility or a debt than a weight, helping differentiate the character from any number of sad-sacks with tragic pasts.
Jake is surrounded by several strong supporting characters. Danielle Nicolet plays Tess, an EDF expert who starts to suspect the mysterious white soldiers are up to something serious with the stolen bit of EDF technology, who insistently tags along with Jake. Tess is a role that can easily become annoying or obnoxious, but her reasoning is always sound and the character's obsessive nature is metered so as to actually be informative rather than irritating. It also helps that Nankin allows for a faint air of attraction to exist between Tess and Jake without ever going further. Gordon Kennedy and Devon Graye play Corvallis and Leo, two Marauders who eventually accept Jake, thanks to his natural understanding and respect for Marauder culture. Again, the film treads lightly on cliches like the brash, angry student and the wiser older mentor, focusing on the pair's personality instead of their plot points. Later in the film, Tamzin Merchant finds an emotional hold on Lyra despite less to do in the story, which gives the brother-sister bond a real sense of authenticity. Lastly, although Patrick delivers a flat scene or two as Alec, he more than makes up for it in scenes with Kate Vernon (playing a Marauder matriarch), and in later scenes with Jake and Lyra.
As far as continuity goes, there are four Red Faction games, and the plot of the films build on several threads from the series, without much hand-holding for general audiences. I had the benefit of a gamer friend to fill me in on some of the backstory, but admittedly, some of the elements might be a bit murky for complete newcomers. It's a double-edged sword: the film is never dragged down by exposition filling the viewer in on stuff fans will already know, but some of that information seems kinda crucial. (The commentary also mentions that the Marauders are re-envisioned from their look in the games, which may put off a few gamers, as well.) Other than that, my only major complaint is Nankin's action direction, which succumbs to the usual quick-cut/shaky-cam nonsense.
The photo of Brian J. Smith on the front cover is so filtered and tweaked, viewers would be forgiven for suspecting Red Faction: Origins is a CG or animated film, ala Resident Evil: Degeneration and Dead Space: Downfall. The back cover has some more identifiably live-action photos. Inside the case, a valuable insert: a sheet with a code for $10 off the new Red Faction game Armageddon (and an ad for SyFy's "Alphas" on the back).
The Video and Audio
Universal's 1.78:1 presentation is strong, if imperfect. Wide shots look a tiny bit fuzzy around the edges, blacks can be a bit thick, and the low-budget CG backgrounds are visibly flat (which, to be fair, may have nothing to do with the transfer itself), but close-ups display a great amount of fine detail, colors are stable, and I didn't spot any artifacting or blocking. As usual for a DTV/TV film, Dolby Digital 5.1 has that "low-budget" feel, particularly during the hand-to-hand and gun-based action sequences, but other sequences, like an early ship-travel scene, are reasonably impressive in terms of balance between the background and dialogue, as well as directionality. Dialogue is clear, and the ambience is never murky or muffled. One small note, though: the Universal logo and snippets of background audio are, oddly enough, noticeably louder and fuller on the audio commentary than the actual feature. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included.
Two central extras are included. "Warring Factions: The Making of Red Faction" (7:13) is a disposable EPK-style featurette with actors describing the story and explaining how great everything is. Following that, director Michael Nankin, Universal Cable's director of development Tom Lieber, and actors Brian J. Smith, Danielle Nicolet, and Devon Graye sit down for an audio commentary. It's an average but likable listen with a good mix of reasoning (about geopolitical conflict, snow on Mars, and blocking), joking (about punishing cold, illness, and "schmacting"), and trivia (connections and changes from the game, and earlier drafts of the script). The group even breaks out a few Robert Patrick impressions. The only complaint about both of these extras is that the director mentions a few cuts, and you can even see a snippet and some B-roll of at least one deleted scene (of Patrick's character, in his glory days) in the EPK, but instead all we get is a photo gallery (8:35).
Trailers for "Eureka" Season 4.0, "Warehouse 13" Season Two, "Battlestar Galactica": The Complete Series, "The Event" Season One, and SyFy's upcoming shows "Alphas" and "Neverland" play before the main menu.
Fans of the game are obviously the core audience for Red Faction: Origins, but having suffered through Dead Space: Downfall, and considering, say, Van Damme's Street Fighter movie, this is a pretty solid effort, with competent performances and enough clever writing to keep me engaged even as someone new to the series. According to Wikipedia, the game series has ended, but Origins would be a decent pilot for a SyFy series continuing Jake's story. Recommended.
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