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Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

In 2017, there was a great disturbance in the Force when Star Wars Episode 9 director Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World) was unceremoniously jettisoned. He had spent over a year developing a script for the concluding film in this new Star Wars trilogy (he’s still listed in the credits for story) and I guess the producers must have had some strong feelings. Trevorrow was out and J.J. Abrams returned to close out the saga he had kicked off with 2015’s The Force Awakens. It felt like a safe choice, the return of an artist best known for dabbling in other people’s established worlds. 2017’s The Last Jedi, written and directed by Rian Johnson (Knives Out), was, to say the least, divisive with the fanbase. It made sense to jump back in with Abrams who had delivered a fun, lively kickstart that made box-office records. Surely Abrams and his army of magicians would steer the franchise into safe territory and provide a satisfying ending to the character he created?

Note: I promise to keep this review free of significant spoilers beyond some minor plot points. If you want to avoid reading anything further until after having seen the film, I understand.

The Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) is alive and well and offering a fleet of planet-destroying starships if Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) will kill Rey (Daisy Ridley). She’s trying to uncover hidden clues about her parentage and still believes she can reform Kylo from the dark side. Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) are chasing after a series of artifacts to find the secret location for the Emperor’s secret planet and rebuild the fledgling resistance. Kylo and Rey are headed for a final confrontation to determine whether they turn to the light side or the dark side.

It is with a heavy heart that I feel like I have to admit that there wasn’t a single storytelling choice that I enjoyed in The Rise of Skywalker. It feels like Abrams and company were in a mad panic after the divisiveness of The Last Jedi and retreated to the safety of nostalgia and fan expectations. This feels like the producers made a list of fan demands and then acceded to them. It certainly feels like an overblown course correction, let alone discarding major changes and characters from Episode 8. Now fan service in itself is not a negative; there is such a thing as good fan service and bad service. The difference is that bad fan service relies heavily on pandering and reference points, leaving an audience unchallenged, and that certainly feels like Episode 9, a movie ever beholden to its calcifying past. My anecdotal evidence already tells me that many fans will love this movie, more than likely the same contingent that found such stinging fault in Episode 8, and I don’t wish them ill. I’m happy for them. For me, Episode 9 is a mess of bad plotting, rushed pacing, truncated character arcs, useless cameos, and a reheated Return of the Jedi climax that was as boring as it was exhausting and dispiriting. It’s supposed to be an end to this new trilogy, and a trilogy of trilogies, but the backwards-looking franchise will never be done paying homage to its cherished past while it eats its own tail until it vomits. This movie is so eager to please as many fans as possible that it feels like an anxious hostage.

I think it was a major mistake for The Emperor to come back into play this late. The very reappearance already cheapens the sacrifice Darth Vader made in Return of the Jedi, and it begs the question what has this evil old man been doing for three decades? Has he just been hanging around his completely empty rock planet sitting on his uncomfortable rock throne? Abrams throws some haphazard lip service that Palpatine was really behind everything, we just never knew it, but that feels cheap. It’s like in 2015’s Spectre when Christoph Waltz emerges and says, “Hey James Bond, while you’ve never met me until this moment, I’m responsible for every bad thing that happened in your life, not those other bad guys, and I just didn’t feel like saying anything.” It wasn’t a satisfying plot development then and it isn’t now. The “boss’ boss” manipulating in the shadows is simply an aggravating shell game. If Palpatine lived even after the second Death Star exploded, then what’s to say if he can ever be defeated? Even if he is toppled in Episode 9, what’s stopping him from being resurrected in Episode 12 to serve as another quick excuse for a major villain? This decision to bring him back to life also taps into a further reverence for bloodlines that The Last Jedi was valiantly fighting against. Star Wars may take place in a different galaxy but it frustratingly feels like only three families populate it. The Last Jedi proposed that you didn’t have to come from select magic bloodlines to be somebody important, that your past was irrelevant, and now Abrams and company sharply reverse course, hugging the concept of the Chosen One until it bursts. It feels creatively starved.

Too much of the movie’s 142-minute run time was devoted to hasty, convoluted plotting that served little else than to fill time. By the concluding movie in a trilogy, there should be no moments left to fill time, nor should we really be introducing new worthless side characters rather than using the people we’ve already established. The first 90 minutes of this movie could be condensed to “get a thing to get a thing.” It’s one superfluous obstacle after another, one item to gain another, that reminded me of video game fetch quests. Even worse, none of it felt like setbacks or difficulties because the movie was rushing through every sequence. If we have to rush through to cover four abbreviated action set pieces, why can’t we consolidate to two really good and developed action set pieces instead? A great way to make your movie forgettable is to cram it full of disposable plotting and short action sequences that never take off. I kind of liked one lightsaber battle along the surf of the ruins of a Death Star (of course there has to be another Death Star!) but that was it for the action. There wasn’t anything onscreen that even came close to replicating the thrills or suspense from Episodes 7 and 8. I felt more suspense in The Last Jedi for Rose’s doomed sister than I did for anyone in Rise of Skywalker. There was space where Abrams and company could have expanded and developed important themes and given characters room to grow, but the pacing feels so breathless in order to distract from the hasty plot retreats.

Characters feel like they zapped to the end of their character arcs because that was what was expected, but why they reached these milestones feels arbitrary from a plotting standpoint. It reminded me of, I’m heartbroken to even say, the final season of Game of Thrones; fans didn’t object on their face to character destinations but the journey to reach these points felt like it was missing key moments to serve as connection. Why redemption now? Why tempted by the dark side now? It plays more like Abrams said, “Well, we ran out of time folks, so let’s skip to the end.” Looking back on the trilogy, it was clearly Rey and Kylo’s story first and foremost, but the supporting characters ultimately feel abandoned and wasted. Finn had a great perspective, a Stormtrooper who defects, but that unique position is cast aside by introducing a new side character that serves no purpose other than to remind you that Abrams must have really not liked Rose (Kelly Marie-Tran). Seriously, Rose is sidelined to study monitors. Abrams tapped an old Lost alum, Dominic Monaghan, for this thankless duty, so why can’t Rose at least be the sidekick? We don’t need another new sidekick this late. Poe is another wasted character. He learns greater responsibility and teamwork in Last Jedi, but he’s really just a Han Solo stand-in, the rakish rogue quick with a quip. Episode 9 gives him an old flame but not much in the way of additional characterization. He feels the same from his first scene in Episode 7. Oh, and all the forced cameos Episode 9 makes time for feels almost like a Star Wars reunion special. That’s including the awkward use of existing General Leia footage to cobble together something for her. I’m wishing more and more that it was Leia that went badass kamikaze in Episode 8 as her exit.

At every point, the movie seemed determined to undercut itself when it came to themes, when it came to character growth, and when it especially came to sacrifices and stakes. There are four fake outs when it comes to deaths. What’s the point of sacrifices when it can just be reversed with little explanation? What’s the point of learning when the Force can just serve as a magic hand-wave solution for anything you need? There are some pretty remarkable leaps in what exactly the Force can do in Episode 9. The Rise of Skywalker even resets some pretty inane things, like Kylo Ren gluing his smashed helmet back together or a certain character getting a long-overdue medal for valor. The themes Abrams works with are extremely broad and lack the questioning of the inerrancy of the Jedi order from Episode 8. It’s also confusing when the theme is that your destiny is not written by your station when the movie repeatedly elevates the mythic at the expense of the nuance and human. It’s like saying your past doesn’t dictate your future while slavishly venerating the past at the expense of the present story.

Given the budget, talent involved, and Abrams’ natural pedigree for blockbuster filmmaking, Rise of Skywalker still has moments of grand spectacle and fun. The actors are still enjoyable to watch and Adam Driver (Marriage Story) is the definite MVP of this new trilogy. His character is, by far, the most interesting and the one that goes on the biggest emotional roller coaster. Abrams slides in some rather pleasing visual compositions. The score by John Williams serves as kind of a greatest hit collection of his many themes over the course of the 40-year saga. The denouement feels right, even if I quibble with the final line spoken. There are things to like, plenty, and I know many fans will find even more, but the good is trounced by the mistakes and miscalculations which just happen to be the really big stuff (plot, resolutions, characterization, action development, structure, payoffs, etc). Abrams himself has joked that he’s really good at starting stories and not so great at finishing them, so maybe choosing to have Episode 9 function as a conclusion not just to three movies but to three times three was overburdening.

I’ve seen it twice now and given some time to think it over, and I think I’ll declare Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker as my least favorite of the nine core movies. I know these are inflammatory words, and for an easily-inflamed fanbase, but my level of disappointment is immense. I’ve enjoyed both of the previous Star Wars saga installments but I wasn’t quite expecting this. I groaned throughout the movie more than I laughed. Even the much-derided Phantom Menace had less at stake, and that’s why I hold the disappointment of Rise of Skywalker as the more grievous of the two. It had much to accomplish and much to payoff and its missteps cast a shadow over the previous movies. It also reconfirms for me my worry that there will only be a small world for Star Wars, a set of pre-approved parameters that creatives must adhere within, taking the same pieces and delivering variations of the same story. There are definite ideas that could work here with Episode 9, but the rushed pacing, inconsequential plot filler and side characters, and its use of nostalgia as a heat shield (look at that cameo please!) doom its execution. As much as Abrams wants to reject destiny, his Star Wars are still driven by a devotion to destiny. We won’t be getting another Star Wars for several years until 2022 and I think that’s a good thing (also without the Thrones writing team now too). The producers need some distance to determine where to go next. I just hope they understand they have an awfully big universe of untapped stories at their disposal and a wealth of eager storytellers with fresh ideas. Star Wars will always be Star Wars but it can also be much more if it wanted to be.

Nate’s Grade: C

August Rush (2007)

Am I too cynical for my own good? I’d like to think that I appreciate authentic works that tug at my heartstrings, and I’m a believer in the power that music can have, which are part of the reasons I named Once the best film of 2007. In comparison, August Rush tries to go all message and winds up skirting over why I should even care what happens to its characters.

In 1994 or so Lyla (Keri Russell) is a concert cellist in New York City. Louis (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is the lead singer in a rock band touring the area. They meet atop a rooftop, look deeply into each other’s eyes, and then have sex. Parents, do not condone this behavior with your daughters and sons. But they’re separated through lame circumstances and nearly miss each other several times. This romantic encounter has spawned a son growing in Lyla’s womb. She gets into a car accident late in the pregnancy and was told by her manager/father tells her the baby has passed away. He is a liar because the baby was born and he signed it up for adoption.

Flash forward 11 years. The child has gown up into the likes of Evan (Freddie Highmore) who lives in a boarding school for orphan boys. He knows his parents are out there in the world somewhere and he believe he can find them through the connection music. He gets lost in New York City and follows a troop of child musicians to the Wizard (Robin Williams). He looks after a gathering of orphan musicians that play on street corners. It’s like Oliver Twist meets American Idol with an extra dose of sugar. Sure enough Evan stars drawing a crowd and the Wizard wants to make sure he doesn’t lose his biggest earner.

This film is a ludicrous and manipulatively maudlin mess. August Rush plays all the big notes; the film’s script is entirely comprised of big moments that waddle and crash into one another, and as such it ignores any details. Like the fact that Evan has the ability to connect to his long-lost parents simply by strumming an instrument, but he’s never heard of musical notes or touched an instrument until he was 11. If the kid hears music everywhere, which reminded me a lot of Bjork in the superior Dancer in the Dark, wouldn’t it stand to reason he would try to, I don’t know, play music? Now I’m not saying he’d have access to every musical instrument at the boy’s boarding house but surely he could have drummed something? I find it unbelievable that a musical prodigy would wait until he was 11 before he picked up an instrument. Also, he learns what sounds are labeled as what letter notes by a cherubic little tyke with some powerful pipes of her own. He goes immediately from learning what an F sharp is to scribbling complex musical notation on blank sheets of music stanzas. How does he know all the symbols and placements and everything that the little girl did not teach him in their brief instructional moment? I’ll go back even further. How come Lyla and Louis give up trying to find each other so easily? Why does Louis wait 11 years before he searches the Internet for Lyla, who, being a world-class cellist, would not exactly be low profile? And why does a pregnant Lyla not do more to, you know, get in contact with her child’s father when he’s even in the exact same city? It’s details like these that August Rush hopes to will the audience to ignore, but to me it was proof time and again that the film’s indifference to plot, character, and maintaining any level of credibility even on a heightened “urban fairy tale” level.

If you replaced the stars then this movie would prove to the world that it belongs on the Lifetime TV network. It’s a melodramatic free-for-all that turns the topic of music into a quasi-religious experience. Now I know for many that music actually can maintain a religious level of power and sweep, but I challenge people watching August Rush to replace the word “music” in the dialogue with any other word to fully realize how cheesy the dialogue is. Let’s try replacing “music with “the force,” and now read this choice line of dialogue: “You know what [the force] is? God’s little reminder that there’s something else besides us in this universe; harmonic connection between all living beings, every where, even the stars.” And: “[The force] is all around you, all you have to do is listen.” This is the kind of film where characters can look up into the void with wistful, wide-eyed looks and somehow connect over the ether. That’s how the characters stay together and eventually reunite in a predictable and sappy manner.

The music itself is rather unremarkable. It’s well composed but I wouldn’t be able to recall it again even if I had a gun to my head. When the movie trumps the message of the transcendent power of music it doesn’t help when the music it presents is less than special.

The acting befits the same cheesy atmosphere of the movie. Highmore is pretty vacant and looks like he’s shrugging from scene to scene, that is, until he bangs his hands against a guitar neck and everyone somehow calls this genius. I think part of Highmore’s problem is that regular folks just think that honest-to-goodness geniuses don’t really have to work hard for results. This is, of course, false. Mozart was a prodigy, yes, but he didn’t just yawn and write down invisible notes that were dancing in front of his eyes waiting all day to be transcribed. He worked hard. Highmore just looks off into the distance and he seems to be in a trance. It’s annoying.

Russell gets to pine for something just outside her reach (turns out it’s a son) but she doesn’t flash an iota of the grace and magic she showcased in Waitress. Meyers gets to “sell out” and then reunite his mid 90s alternative rock band. Here’s the thing — the sound EXACTLY THE SAME after 12 years and yet on their first gig back together they have a huge crowd? The movie is trying to tell me that the tastes of pop culture wouldn’t change in a dozen years. Williams manages to give hints about a troubled past as a musical prodigy eaten up by a system hungry for the next big thing. He also bellows and growls and comes across like a creepy Fagan for a team of street urchins.

August Rush is sticky, sappy, manipulative and maudlin feel-good rubbish. This is the kind of movie that most people will probably never get. Perhaps people who live, breathe, sleep, and eat music will feel more inspired by its message of human connection and spiritual fulfillment via the power of music. That’s swell but it still doesn’t excuse the fact that August Rush is a overly serious, laughable, syrupy work. If you’re going to dismiss its faults as the film being a “fairy tale” well then the film still doesn’t establish any hard rules for its universe. The characters are still one-note and behave in annoying and moronic ways because the plot demands it of them. And classifying the film as a fairy tale still doesn’t make the music any better. I can’t believe this stuff had a shot of beating the spectacular songs from Once for 2007’s Best Song Oscar. In fact, August Rush wishes it was Once because that low-budget charmer was able to communicate the power of music honestly and profoundly with the added benefit of beautiful tunes. I would like to recommend that all people thinking about renting August Rush.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Waitress (2007)

Kerri Russell is irresistibly charming in this winning romantic comedy from the late write/director Adrienne Shelly. I fell totally in love, head over heels, with Waitress and I’m not ashamed to say it. In a perfect world, Russell would earn an Oscar-nomination for her sure-handed, witty, and incandescent performance as a pregnant woman who has an affair with her new gyno doc (Serenity‘s Nathan Fillion). This is a star-making performance and it is sealed when the movie relies solely on her emerging smile for an entire minute to communicate a blossoming figure. The supporting cast is great in their eccentric roles well and the movie concludes in a happy if unconventional manner. Waitress is the kind of movie that makes you feel great. The sheer exuberance on display is infectious and it makes it an even bigger tragedy that Shelly will never grant the world another wonderful slice of entertainment.

Nate’s Grade: A

Mission: Impossible III (2006)

Few celebrities have had the intense flame-out Tom Cruise has experienced in a little over a year’s time. First there was the PDA-heavy relationship with Katie Holmes, never a wet tongue-kiss away from a camera. Then there was the couch aerobics on Oprah Winfrey’s set, bleating his over-the-top declarations of love like Roger Rabbit. This was followed by a series of testy interviews about his war of words on psychiatry and prescription drugs. Entertainment Weekly just ran a cover story asking, “Is Tom Cruise worth his paycheck?” He’s gone from Hollywood’s most bankable actor to a national punch line. To bring new life to Cruise’s spy series, he tapped TV mastermind J.J. Abrams to make his feature debut after Cruise churned through two seasons of spy series Alias DVDs. Abrams is a gifted franchise starter, first with Alias and then with Lost, and with Mission: Impossible III he does the best he can to erase the memory of Tom Cruise, daredevil of furniture.

Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is out of field work at the Impossible Mission Force, training recruits for the big time. He’s settled into a comfortable home life with Julia (Michelle Monaghan), a woman he’s blissfully engaged to be wed. Ethan’s happy home is disrupted when IMF needs his services. It seems one of his trainees (Keri Russell, Felicity goes badass) has been captured by an arms middleman Owen Davian (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a man that will get any deadly force to the right bidder. Hunt reluctantly goes back into the field, assembling a team that includes Luther (Ving Rhames), Zhen (Maggie Q, quite fetching), and pilot Declan (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Their mission goes badly and Hunt is reprimanded for his cavalier actions. He’s determined to snag Owen and get justice. This leads to an incredibly stuffed game of cat-and-mouse, each jockeying for leverage. There’s some super powerful device called the “rabbit’s foot” that everyone wants but it’s not really important. What is important is that Owen is eager to strike back at Ethan’s most vulnerable point — harming Julia.

This movie is quite possibly one of the greatest TV adaptations of all time. No, not the Mission: Impossible series but Alias. Just like J.J. Abrams’ TV brainchild, this slick, propulsive caper puts a smart spin on familiar ground. We’ve got the flash-forward narrative trickery, the super gadgets, the undercover teamwork, the world-trotting sprawling vistas, and anchoring the whole thing with an emotional counterpoint, trying to lead a double, “normal” life and keeping your loved ones equally safe and in the dark. There’s a great scene in the middle of a mission where Ethan and Luther casually discuss the impossibilities of living a normal life given what they do. Luther warns that those close to you will only end up getting hurt, and by this point thanks to a startling, right-to-the-point opener with a gun to sweet Julia’s head, we know he’s right. That’s what makes the third go-round different: Abrams has injected some emotion into the darn thing. Ethan is pressed back into service and then becomes something of a knight in shining Kevlar, trying to save his beloved in the crossfire of international espionage. There are a handful of scenes between Cruise and Monaghan and they sell the emotional drama in tender quiet looks. As a result, the audience and Ethan are rooted to their seats beyond just the assembly line of pyrotechnics. Just like Alias (at least up until Season 3 when it jumped the shark with the long-lost sister). It’s like if True Lies was played straight and Tom Arnold was mercifully forgotten.

Ah, but what pyrotechnics they are. Things get heated with a trip to the Vatican and they literally do not let up, all the while raising the stakes by pulling Ethan’s home life closer to the danger of his job. You’ll be left breathless absorbing all the exhilarating action sequences, which to my best estimate are more than the first two flicks combined. The stunts are superbly death-defying. What makes action sequences so enjoyable, pay attention you Hollywood rubes, is when the stage is set and then we watch organic complications. Abrams has a tremendous feel for action and playfully extends virtuoso sequences of awesome carnage. An attack on a bridge is simply outstanding and gave me an overload of geeky joy. We’re given the tight, controlled setting, and then Abrams introduces the outside conflict and keeps developing it masterfully step by step. There’s air attacks, there’s running back and forth amongst the wreckage, there’s searching for guns while escaping attack, and then there’s flying leaps over gaping concrete holes. I was jumping in my seat with boyish glee. The slow-mo gun toss between Cruise and Russell? Awesome. The swing-shot jump off a gigantic skyscraper in Shanghai? Awesome. The use of Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead) as gadget guru? Awesome. Mission: Impossible III is, if nothing else, an incredible adrenaline rush orchestrated by a man with a finger directly on the pulse of his audience. By summer popcorn standards, Mission: Impossible III is everything you could hope for. Sure it’s highly implausible but it’s just so damn fun.

Abrams has created quite a breakthrough for himself. Long regarded as a TV visionary for his tangled, engrossing pop-pulp like Alias and Lost, Abrams shows what he can do with a bazillion dollars and one of the world’s most recognized stars. Abrams intelligent, deft handling of his material, elevating tired genre devices with flash and reverence, reminds me of a young Steven Spielberg. This is a man that respects his material and respects his audience, but still knows how to bring home an entertaining movie. I’ve followed Abrams’ career since getting hooked on Alias in 2001, and I’m confident he will become the best friend a movie geek could ever have (Star Trek fans should be clicking their heels about Abrams’ rumored involvement). Even though Mission: Impossible III is Abrams’ film debut (and on record the most expensive ever for a first time film director) he already shows more command, more wit, and more hipness than most of Hollywood’s graying old guard.

Finally, this is the first Mission: Impossible film to utilize the team aspect of the TV show. Granted, Cruise still does most of the running, jumping, climbing trees, but thankfully this movie is more than the Tom Cruise Kicks Everyone in the Face Show a.k.a Mission: Impossible II. The supporting cast all have their one great moment and part of the fun is their interaction, seeing the pieces fit into place. Just like last summer’s Batman Begins I would like to see another movie immediately with everyone involved. Make it happen. This is the Mission: Impossible world I want to explore in greater detail.

Mission: Impossible III is not bulletproof. The movie seriously needed more time for its villain. Hoffman does a great job of bringing his bad man to grumpy life. He goes about business with a detached nonchalance, like a plumber fixing his 10,000th clog. It may sound silly but it works because Hoffman gives his character a lizardy, unscrupulous sense of ethics. He really will put a bullet between the eyes of anyone, possibly while reheating some food in his microwave. That’s the greatness of Hoffman’s villain, how ordinary he sees his line of work and what it calls him to do. Now, with such a terrific villain it would behoove Mission: Impossible III to give him plenty of screen time. Sadly, Hoffman has about three real scenes, and his end is anticlimactic and so is the film as a whole. And what does IMF have to do to curb moles? There’s been one in all three Mission: Impossible movies. Maybe they should offer better vacation plans.

Tom Cruise may have done a lot to wear out his welcome with the public but he knows to surround himself with good people. The decision to let J.J. Abrams helm Mission: Impossible III has finally given this franchise vision and sustained excitement. This movie is far more emotionally based than any other in the series and there’s a genuine emotional reason for all the fireworks this time. The team aspect is finally addressed and Hoffman makes a truly lecherous, scary villain. But the bread and butter of this flick are its breathless action sequences, brilliantly choreographed by Abrams, a name destined for even greater things. Abrams knows how to spin genre clichés into clever, loose, twisty, funny, thrilling, emotionally centered gold. I don’t care if Cruise abused a couch and the public’s good will; Mission: Impossible III is an extravagant popcorn movie and a great way to start the summer. If only they were all like this.

Nate’s Grade: B+

We Were Soldiers (2002)

Randall Wallace and Gibson last teamed up on Braveheart and came away with a bushel of gold statuettes. Their latest collaboration is a Vietnam war flick called We Were Soldiers based upon the novel by Lt. Col. Hal Moore and photographer Joe Galloway. It details the chaos of the battle at Ia Drang where 400 US soldiers were surrounded in a valley by 2000 North Vietnamese fighters and held their own for three long days.

The opening chunk of We Were Soldiers concerns the domestic side of the soldiers. Lt. Col. Hal Moore (Mel Gibson) is a man of great honor and battlefield heroics complete with five kids and a determined and loving wife Julie (Madeleine Stowe). Does anyone have any problems identifying the hero yet? Moore has been commanded to assemble an inexperienced band of soldiers and mold them into the 7th Cavalry division. His men include new father Lt. Jack Geoghegan (Chris Klein), helicopter pilot Maj. Bruce Crandall (Greg Kinnear) and grizzled veteran Sgt.-Maj. Basil Plumley (Sam Elliott). They’ve been called in to be apart of one of the first strikes of the Vietnam War in 1965. Gibson rallies the troops and they head toward the East. What followed could be deemed a suicide mission as the 7th Cavalry and other divisions were surrounded by the advancing Vietcong and fought to the teeth for their survival.

Director Randall Wallace (who last directed and adapted for the screen Man in the Iron Mask) is a director that doesn’t know a thing about subtlety in his mess of patriotism. Wallace just doesn’t hammer his points and views; he’ll bludgeon you to death with them. Gibson ensures his men that he will be the first one into battle and the last to leave. Sure enough, as the helicopter is setting down we see a big close-up of Gibson’s boot hitting the earth and a thunderous echo follows. The point has been made. Wallace also manages to squeeze in a bit where he can skewer the media. A horde of reporters show up at the end of the battle, ducking at any noise they hear, and stick their mics in Gibson’s face asking absurd questions like “How do you feel about the loss of your men?” Oh Wallace, you are such a shrewd satirist.

The violence in the film is incredibly graphic, as with the tradition of most recent war movies like Black Hawk Down. The violence almost reaches a sadistic level where we see slow motion shot after shot of people with a geyser of blood spewing from head wounds. The blood flows freely and often but loses its impact. I would even go as far as saying that much of the violence in ‘We Were Soldiers’ is overkill under Wallace.

The makeup that accompanies some of the battle wounds is surprisingly disappointing (as is a lot in the film). One character, after an accidental blast from napalm, has half his head looking like a burnt marshmallow. The shoddiness of the look inspires more laughs under your breath than gasps.

The battle of Ia Drang shows reactions from both sides of those fighting. Every now and then the film cuts back to the Vietnamese side in their underground lair. The leadership over explains all their strategic movements in large flailing gestures. It’s like a cheap play-by-play for the audience. We Were Soldiers also follows the recent trend of trying to humanize the enemy. But these attempts are easily seen as the hollow politically correct handouts that they are. One scene shows a Vietnamese soldier writing in a book to his honey back home. It’s nice to see clichés transcend ethnicity.

The film succumbs to the usual war movie clichés and Hollywood formula. The problem with making a supposed “emotional” Vietnam movie is that the definitive Vietnam movies concerning the madness of battle (Apocalypse Now and Platoon) and the crippling after-effects (The Deer Hunter and Born on the Fourth of July) have already been made. We Were Soldiers portrays Vietnam before the politics got in the way and concentrates on the courage of the men who dutifully entered into battle at the heed of their country’s call. I can’t help but feel that the men who bled and died in that battle don’t deserve a better movie.

Gibson as Moore gives a stoic performance and adds a level of humor to the figure, but there’s no questioning the mettle of this soldier. Gibson’s character is almost an exaggerated propaganda action figure. Moore’s courage is unquestionable and that’s the way they want it. Madeleine Stowe is a terrific actress but is generally wasted here. Most of the movie she spends her time hugging people while wearing some horrible Cher wig and looking eerily like Hillary Swank in The Gift. Chris Klein looks entirely out of place, as does his wife played by curly-coifed Felicity actress Keri Russell. Greg Kinnear spends the entire movie sitting in a helicopter chair barely seen. They could have saved some money and hired an extra.

We Were Soldiers is an okay film but it should have been much more. Gibson elevates what could have been worse but Wallace isn’t doing the film any justice. Wallace is too heavy-handed with his direction and flag-waving message and seems to have his film begging to be taken seriously. We Were Soldiers can pass the time all right, but there are better things you could do then watch this force-fed old-fashioned narrative.

Nate’s Grade: C

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