We're living in something resembling a post-pandemic euphoria, a universal orgasm of sorts resulting from far too long with the doors shut, the masks on, the isolation penetrating, and our virus obsessed minds suddenly able to focus on something else. Anything else. We all responded to the COVID-19 pandemic differently, of course. Some raged against the machines of repression and rights restrictions. Others embraced social reclusivity and hibernating until it was safe to peek out.
Most of us lived. Some of us died. An awful lot of us are worse for the wear.
Janusz Madej's Legendary is not a pandemic film. This 20-minute thriller lives in a similar world, a world marked by a sort of comfortable paranoia with truths hidden behind masks and mysteries solved within the shadows that surround us. Legendary is a reminder that, just perhaps, the virus was never really the root cause of the pandemic. We were the pandemic. It was always us and the choices we made.
Mike (Martin Vis), also known as Goldenboy in the online first-person shooter game in which he has immersed himself, is a seemingly ordinary lad in his dimly lit apartment where his mind escapes into realities we don't really understand other than to know that when he's in this world he gives himself to it with an almost cult-like devotion. He is a good player, likely one of the best, working collaboratively alongside the online pal he's never actually met and knows only as Crusher (Leonard van Herwijnen). We meet them, however, as they have been defeated by a mysterious foe known as Redeemer 13. He's all swagger and braggadocio, though that's not exactly uncommon when it comes to the late night players in these first-person shooter games. Swagger isn't just expected. It's demanded.
Still, Redeemer 13, played by Madej himself, is something else. He issues a menacing threat for those who dare to challenge him again.
Of course, we know that Goldenboy will dare.
Legendary is a gut-check film. If you're a cineaste, you'll think of Kieslowski's Short Film About Love. If you're a poet, you'll think Bukowski. The film's neon lights reminded me of midnight in Dallas's Deep Ellum, a place you don't really want to be but a place you can never resist.
Legendary was shot in Amsterdam, a 4-day shoot that leaves you wondering what Madej would do with a Hollywood budget because if he accomplishes this much with this little the cinematic world ought to be his for the taking. A former ballet dancer for the Northern Ballet Theatre in Leeds, UK and the Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam, Madej turned to film when he retired from ballet in 2008 and I've been following his work ever since. It's hard to pick a favorite from the director of such strong films as Resolve, 11, Stigma, and Blue Glass, but Legendary may very well be my favorite.
Vis mesmerizes as Mike, existing somewhere on that fantasy line that exists between the very real Mike and the almost fantasy-like Goldenboy. He's obviously lonely yet living in this imaginary world pierced by reality and all that reality has to offer. Vis captures both sides beautifully by possessing both swagger and vulnerability along with ample doses of paranoia.
In Legendary, Mike has become obsessed with a couple in an apartment across the street. She seems vulnerable. He is undeniably abusive.
We really only get glimpses of everyone but Mike. We get shards of their existence like broken glass reflecting a skewed reality. Madej has always been a terrific storyteller and he masterfully toys with us here in a way that feels strangely familiar and incredibly true. There's not a false note played.
Lensing by Tomas Overtoom is nothing short of remarkable, spherical lenses grounding the film in a stark naturalism that amplifies the thrills and the paranoia. There's action here for sure, however, Madej and Overtoom emphasize the subtler side of suspense where visual image is everything and the sound design dares you to blink. Sound designer Melvin Rijlaarsdam has done masterful work here alongside his team. Sound could have easily trashed Legendary. Instead, an incredible sound design makes sure this is a short film we'll be remembering at year's end.
The always dependable Alberto Bellavia once again creates an extraordinary score, a mini-symphony of heightened drama, suspense, paranoia, and intimacy. I honestly have no idea how Bellavia is not a household name.
Legendary is currently on its festival journey and this tremendous effort seems destined to further cement Madej's growing reputation as an intelligent, inspired, and risk-taking filmmaking with a unique ability to weave a tapestry of cinematic thought and feeling. Legendary feels both incredibly personal and almost universal in its presence.
Easily one of my favorite short films yet in 2023, Legendary is, quite simply, a film you will not forget.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic