By the time Michael Cera -- the skinny, mumbling charmer from "Superbad" and "Juno" -- begins hammering bad guys into oblivion and slicing through henchmen with a flaming sword, it's become abundantly clear that just about anything is possible in this film.
Such is the universe of "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World." A movie based on a comic book that played with a video-game aesthetic, it tangles all of these elements into an exhilarating stab at high-concept action comedy. Whew. And it almost works.
Cera is Scott Pilgrim, a middling 23-year-old living in snowy Toronto, where he plays bass in a geek garage band. He surrounds himself with a clan of quick-witted hipsters who talk like displaced characters from Cera's "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist." Scott's slacker prowess is the target of many a quip, mostly by his sardonic gay roommate Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin), who constantly derides our hero for dating a doughy-eyed underage high school student named Knives Chau. (What's with these names?)
Scott's life gets interesting when he meets Ramona Flowers, the girl of his dreams (and his age). Unfortunately, he's not the first guy to fall for her neon-colored hairdos and acerbic disposition. Scott is told -- as in some biblical decree -- that to win Ramona's love, he must first vanquish her "Seven Evil Exes."
The odd, exciting world of "Scott Pilgrim" has been dropped into the very capable hands of Edgar Wright. The English director has a keen eye for reimagining (read: spoofing) tired movie genres, as he did with zombies in "Shaun of the Dead" and buddy-cop movies in "Hot Fuzz." With "Scott Pilgrim," he playfully tinkers with the superhero and video-game adaptations that constantly bombard our movie-watching senses.
At first, "Scott Pilgrim" seems to have a fresh, oddball take on these visually aggressive genres. The screen literally pulsates with action. The strumming of Scott's guitar shoots out lightning bolts. A telephone's ring sends the letters R-I-N-G swooshing across the screen as they would in a comic-book panel.
To really dive into "Scott Pilgrim," however, you need a passing familiarity with video-game vocabulary. In his first fight with an Evil Ex, Scott delivers a surprising flurry of offense, which awards him a "64-hit combo" on screen. And Scott's death blow turns his adversary's body into an exploding splash of gold coins, a la "Super Mario Bros." (To which Scott says: "Sweet! Coins," and promptly picks them up.)
Throughout this strange odyssey, "Scott Pilgrim" has a lot of fun tackling the familiar tropes of these genres. Upon entering the battlefield with Scott, one of Ramona's Evil Exes tells him: "Prepare to die -- obviously." It's all very cute in a wink-wink sort of way.
While these sly moments give "Scott Pilgrim" a subversive bent, the film also provides enough loud, chest-thumping action to make Michael Bay jealous.
Herein lies the problem. You can't have it both ways. What's the point of being clever if you're just going to follow it up with enough flaming-sword action and exploding bad guys to make our pupils hurt?
"Scott Pilgrim" sets out to be a smart, fun riff on Hollywood's pubescent action genres, but in the end it feels like another loud comic book movie.
Tom Horgen • 612-673-7909