Tag Archives: C-

MEN OF HONOR

The utterly generic title attached to this new military drama, about the personal and professional struggles of first African-American to break the color barrier in the Navy’s diving program, is somehow emblematic of the sadly mediocre character of the picture. As crushingly earnest as the recent “Remember the Titans” but even more cliched and less compelling, “Men of Honor” is essentially the cinematic equivalent of those ever-so-earnest TV movies about overcoming pervasive discrimination through sheer grit and boundless determination; the fact that it’s been gussied up with big stars and a sizable budget merely accentuates its hollowness. It might be about a master diver, but as a drama it surely doesn’t go very deep, and it sinks awfully fast.

Cuba Gooding, Jr., plays, with his usual vacuous enthusiasm, Carl Brashear, a poor Kentucky farmboy who, upon enlisting in the recently-integrated service in 1948, soon tires of the mess-hall duty usually assigned to those of his race and, after proving his mettle as a swimmer, gains entrance to the Navy’s Dive School; his ambition is to achieve the exalted rank of Master Diver. He has to confront numerous obstacles, however, including his poor educational foundation and widespread animosity from his fellow pupils, all white. Most notably, he’s faced with opposition from the tough-as-nails, redneck training officer Billy Sunday (Robert De Niro), whose rage at having suffering a debilitating injury which forced him from sea duty seems to be redirected at the recruit. Sunday’s belligerence is exceeded by that of the senile camp commandant known as Pappy (a doddering Hal Holbrook); and after a fashion that’s good news for Brashear, because the only thing about Sunday that exceeds his personal venom is his hatred of authority and his sense of honor. Ultimately that’s what will persuade him to mitigate his opposition and grudgingly help the recruit survive a final, harrowing test. The latter segment of the story, set some years afterward, reunites the two old antagonists when Brashear’s career is threatened by an injury similar to that which sidelined Sunday, and the old salt reemerges to help his former student fight against the pencil-pushing mentality of the New Navy to retain his rank–honorable men of the Old School standing together against the by-the-numbers approach of upstart bureaucrats. The courtroom finale recalls earlier pictures like “A Few Good Men,” but the issues it raises are far more lightweight and the matters at stake less compelling, though politically extremely correct.

Within the confines of this calculatedly uplifting plot, the picture is professionally assembled but utterly conventional. George Tillman, Jr.’s direction is leaden, never bypassing a chance for overemphasis, and it’s abetted by Mark Isham’s bombastic score, which swells and swoons to insure that you can’t possibly miss any of the melodramatic points being hammered home. Under these circumstances the cast can’t do much more than tread water. Gooding is monochromatically determined, and Aunjanue Ellis pretty much wasted as the young librarian who helps him study (after an embarrassingly unreal courtship by Brashear) and eventually becomes his wife. There are decent supporting turns by a comparatively restrained Michael Rapaport (as the only recruit who befriends Brashear; by Powers Boothe, David Keith and Glynn Turman as officers under whom our hero serves at sea; and by Carl Lumbly, as Carl’s father. On the other hand, Holbrook almost gums himself to death as the racist commandant, and David Conrad is irritatingly smug and priggish as the lieutenant who’s instrumental in both reducing Sunday’s rank and endangering Brashear’s later career. (He’s pretty limp in a role that demands a really hissable villain.)

By far the saddest element of “Men of Honor,” though is watching De Niro struggle with the role of Sunday. De Niro’s a great actor, of course, but even he needs a character to fill, and a seething drill sergeant who says things like “I am God” to his recruits isn’t even a sketch–it’s a caricature. De Niro tries to compensate by strutting about and spitting out his lines while inventing bits of business to take up space, but nothing works. One rule of thumb is particularly applicable here: when a star spends much of his performance fiddling with a corncob pipe–lighting it, puffing it, looking at it lovingly, even telling his co-star the story behind it–it’s a truism that he’s doing so because there’s simply no role there for him to sink his teeth into. The principle is clearly operative here. Perhaps De Niro needs to begin choosing his parts a bit more carefully and acting somewhat less frequently–even a reputation as exalted as his might not survive too many mistakes like “Rocky and Bullwinkle” and this. (His difficulties here seem to extend, moreover, to Charlize Theron, playing his young wife. In an unflattering wig, she nearly disappears beside her persistently overwrought co-star.)

Carl Brashear is undoubtedly a person of real courage and accomplishment, but “Men of Honor,” while well-intentioned and possessed of considerable cinematic sheen, isn’t really worthy of him, or of De Niro. Given the subject matter, it’s a shame that Hollywood’s treatment of it proves so terribly shallow.

MVP: MOST VALUABLE PRIMATE

The folks who brought you the “Air Bud” movies about a basketball- (and, in the sequel, football-) playing pooch offer a radical revision of their formula by bringing us a hockey-playing chimpanzee in “MVP: Most Valuable Primate.” Like its two doggie predecessors (and there’s yet a third “Air Bud” on the way), this kiddie flick is relentlessly nice and soft-grained, and it boasts a whole array of uplifting messages, rather like one of Disney’s sappier live-action films from the fifties or sixties. But while it may well amuse very young children (up to the age of six or eight, say) with its collection of monkey antics, older kids will find it hopelessly slow and hokey, and even the most tolerant parents will probably be squirming in their seats long before it ambles to a close.

The admittedly juvenile premise of “MWP” is that a brainy chimp from a California research institute makes his way, after the death of his kindly old mentor (tastefully depicted, of course), to a small, snowy town in Canada, where recent U.S. transplant Steven Westover (Kevin Zegers) and his deaf sister Tara (Jamie Renee Smith) are having difficulty adjusting to the new environment. Tara, an intelligent and resourceful gal, is finding it hard to make friends, while Steven, a standout hockey player back in the States, is forced to join a local team composed of lazy has-beens who care little about playing their best. Into their lives pops chimp Jack, who soon shows his skating dexterity and becomes the sparkplug in the rejuvenation of Steven’s team (and the means by which Tara finds friendship). But the wicked dean of the school where Jack once resided (Oliver Muirhead, doing a very bad impersonation of Jeffrey Jones’ principal from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”) is tracking the monkey down to reclaim and sell him. Can his evil plan be foiled? Can Jack make it back to his mommy at a wildlife refuge? Can Steven’s team win the big game? Can Tara find happiness?

Can you doubt the answers to any of these questions? The problem with “MVP,” except for the very youngest viewers, will be that it offers absolutely nothing new, proceeding along a resolutely predictable course and repeating the same sort of monkeyshines that cute chimps have provided in countless earlier flicks. Some of the “problems” resolved over the span of the plot are almost absurdly simple-minded: a hapless goalie is turned into a star by the simple expedient of getting him some glasses, for example. Indeed, the only remotely surprising thing about the picture is that it presents all the adult characters as half-wits; and given that the picture is a Canadian production, it’s particularly odd that it perpetuates the dumbest stereotypes about our neighbors to the north–eh?

Still, the chimps will likely be cute enough to keep the tykes amused (Jack is actually played by three animals), and it’s nice that the sequences involving Jack are done fairly straight, without the use of animatronics or computer imaging. (A few skating scenes are obviously speeded-up, but that’s a minor matter.) This might well be the result of the picture’s very modest budget, but it’s still a charmingly old-fashioned touch. Zegers, who also starred in the “Air Bud” films, remains a likable guy, though he’s sometimes stiff, and Smith has an ingratiating smile. Nostalgia buffs may be interested in the presence of Dave Thomas, of SCTV fame, who plays the announcer providing supposedly funny commentary on the hockey games; he hasn’t aged gracefully, it must be said, and he’s certainly no Fred Willard (see “Best in Show”) on the laugh-meter.

So “MVP” is certainly well-intentioned and harmless; but it’s also stodgy and overly familiar. In the current cultural climate it would surely be more at home on the small screen or in the video store than in theatres. And that’s where it will very soon wind up.