Most of the stories that you've read about this comedy are probably about its troubled experiences getting distribution. The stars and filmmakers were at Comic-Con promising this movie two years ago, and fan support has been at a fever pitch. But when you watch it, you'll see that movie's greatest strength — its loving tribute to LARP culture — might have been a commercial liability. Geeks may be hip now, but not the ones in this movie. This is a sympathetic tale about a group of nerds who would be relegated to the status of a punchline in most other films. And that's a hard sell in Hollywood.
Ryan Kwanten, of True Blood fame, plays Joe, a down-on-his-luck metal singer whose girlfriend dumps him because she thinks he's going nowhere. He's scraping by with a job as a car mechanic, living with his rich friend Eric (Steve Zahn) and their buddy Hung (Peter Dinklage). Zahn does a great job playing Eric as a guy who can afford to spend his life indulging in his favorite hobby, playing a wizard in a local LARP. Meanwhile, Hung is a complete maniac who just wants to get stoned and smash shit up with swords. When the two see how depressed Joe is over his breakup, they force-feed him bong hits and drag him along to the biggest LARP of the year.
And this is where Knights of Badassdom goes into territory that no mainstream movie really could. Director Joe Lynch is a keen observer of nerd culture, and there are a lot of givens here that another movie would bend over backwards to explain — probably in pretty condescending terms. For example, the LARP's costumed players and byzantine rules are presented to us as if we naturally know how such games work, much the way football might be presented in a sports comedy. Except of course even non-fans know how football works, while most mainstream audiences haven't a clue about LARPing. Still, this insidery feel is part of the movie's charm.
We are introduced to a cast of characters whose social lives revolve around their status in the LARP, making this a kind of odd drawing room comedy about gamers. There's the haughty game master who may or may not grant Eric enough experience points to ascend to the next level of wizardhood, hot ninja Gwen (Summer Glau), and rule-obsessed cleric Lando (Community's Danny Pudi). In his eagerness to impress the game master, Eric reads from a new book of spells that he bought online, conjuring up a demon who takes the form of Joe's ex-girlfriend. Now there's a real-life monster in their midst, right alongside the car tricked out to be a papier-mâché dragon.
As the LARP heats up, the demon wanders from gamer group to gamer group, giving us ample opportunity for sketch comedy alongside the comic-style gore. Again, these scenes will be hilarious for people familiar with gamer culture – but possibly bewildering to those outside it. At one point, we see a polyamorous couple arguing because one of them hooked up with a woman whom they were supposed to be dating only as a couple. Another flick would have made this situation into the freakish butt of a joke, but here it's just the set up to explain why the woman wanders off in a snit to make out (fatally) with the demon. For various reasons, polyamory is widely accepted in geek subcultures, and we see that tolerance reflected here. It's also another way that this movie may be too offbeat for audiences used to mainstream fare like the Big Bang Theory.
I don't mean to to suggest that this movie represents the true spirit of geek authenticity or something like that. There are many ways to be a geek, and this movie shows just a few of them. I'm trying to explain why I think it's going to be a big hit among gamers even though it was a tough sell for Hollywood distributors.
In addition to the well-observed slices of LARPer life, what's great about this movie is the way it remains so gentle and light, despite tackling a story that could get pretty dark. I'm not talking about the demon, whose bloody escapades are a zany tip of the hat to other horror comedies like Evil Dead. I mean the social rivalries between the gamers, which are realistically pointed; we also discover that some of the characters have problems a lot more dire than a mean ex-girlfriend. There's a hint of sadness at the edges of the story, much the way there is in Fanboys, another fine geek flick with a troubled distribution history. But we never fall down the rabbit hole into emo territory – we just wind up feeling like we've met real people, who are coping with real life in the best way they can.
I said earlier that I thought this movie would play best to people in geek subcultures, but honestly I think it's made for anyone with sympathy for outsiders. This is one of those genuinely good-natured comedies that sticks with you, like an old friend. Oh and also — did I mention the musical numbers? Yeah. You can watch the movie on VOD starting on February 11.