Talk about exceeding expectations. Babylon A.D., which had all the cauliflower earmarks of a trashy action throwaway, turns out instead to be a disturbing, wonderfully executed vision of the future, the equal of last year's well-received Children of Men.
The film also returns Vin Diesel to his ideal mode as a basso profundo decimator. In Babylon A.D. he plays Toorop, a hardened mercenary scratching to survive in a brutal, bombed-out Eastern Europe.
Toorop is hired by Russian crime lord Gorsky (a nearly unrecognizable Gerard Depardieu) to smuggle a girl named Aurora (Mélanie Thierry) from a Mongolian convent to New York.
He's joined by one of the convent's sisters (Michelle Yeoh) on this perilous pilgrimage during which they are attacked by everything but flying monkeys.
The chilling villainess of the piece is Charlotte Rampling, in an utterly convincing performance. She is the leader of one of several powerful interests who are determined to acquire Aurora.
The girl is not as fragile as she first appears. In fact, Toorop begins to wonder if his beautiful package is a savior or a weapon.
Director Mathieu Kassovitz (Gothika) has done a remarkable job with this material. The action scenes are a little murky, but the atmosphere is superb, from a pocked and toxic Russia to the glittering affluence of North America.
His rendering of a future Manhattan, though brief, is captivating. Every block of this vertical, electronic ad-plastered island looks like Times Square. The details are excellent as well, down to the decor and the compulsory media saturation.
Seamless in its execution, the movie plays out like a grittier version of The Fifth Element. Babylon A.D. is a savage fairy tale, a tad overburdened with symbolism, but gripping nonetheless.
Babylon A.D. *** (out of four stars)
Directed and cowritten by Mathieu Kossovitz. With Vin Diesel, Michelle Yeoh, Mélanie Thierry and Charlotte Rampling. Distributed by 20th Century Fox.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (intense violence and language, action)
Playing at: Area theaters
Contact staff writer David Hiltbrand at dhiltbrand@ phillynews.com or 215-854-4552. Read his recent work at http:// go.philly.com/daveondemand.