Talking Movies

November 30, 2019

From the Archives: Rescue Dawn

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Pilot Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) is shot down on his first mission over Vietnam. Captured by the Vietcong he plots to escape and find his way home.

Christian Bale adds another impressive characterisation to his resume playing real life Vietnam War POW Dieter Dengler. Rescue Dawn is inspired by events in Dengler’s life previously documented by the legendary (by which I mean famously bat-crazy) German director Werner Herzog in his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Bale expertly plays a German who has become an American citizen and whose accent is American, but not quite genuine, and whose mental state could best be described as…peculiar. Herzog, the director of Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo is quite at home in this cinematic territory of insane heroes in the jungle and produces his best fictional feature in years. Werner Herzog is after all the man who dragged a boat over a mountain for the making of Fitzcarraldo, about a 19th century rubber baron in Brazil who wanted to build an opera house in the middle of the Amazon.

Herzog brilliantly uses minimal dialogue for the first half hour to tell the story of Dengler’s capture and torture at the hands of the Vietcong thru the medium of pure cinema. He wordlessly conveys the utter terror of the Vietcong whenever an American airplane screams overhead. Herzog achieves a sense of location few Vietnam films have, even Apocalypse Now’s intense feeling for its locale is eclipsed by his extraordinary eye for landscape cinematography which makes the lush jungle almost another character. Bale’s time in the POW camp moves out of this art-house territory towards more mainstream fare, and the film slows down and becomes less distinctive. The men sit and bitch about being prisoners of war, plot escape plans (as all prisoners of war seem to spend most of their time doing, to the detriment of their guards’ nerves) and try to raise morale by fantasising over their favourite meals. Herzog inserts some excellent gags here but never lets you forget that Dengler is a very odd hero figure for these men to rally round.

The relationship between Bale and Steve Zahn as a fellow American prisoner in the small Vietcong camp is highly convincing but Jeremy Davies is endlessly irritating as the only other American POW. Davies has been using the same mannered tics since 1994 and has blighted films from The Million Dollar Hotel to Solaris. His popularity with casting directors continues to mystify. Steve Zahn, by contrast, grasps with both hands the chance to do something more substantial than his usual comedic sidekick roles and delivers a touching portrayal of man worn down by despair and malnutrition. Herzog’s languid pacing in this film, particularly in the second act, may irritate people raised on MTV editing but the majesty of the landscape and the emotional depth he achieves is more than adequate recompense, Rescue Dawn is an offbeat take on a familiar genre, welcome to the extreme as a matter of course.

3/5

May 2, 2008

Iron Man

Robert Downey Jr is a decadent, irresponsible, drink-swilling loose cannon with a lot of talent and more money than God…in this film.

Downey Jr was inspired casting for Marvel Comics’ high-risk first self-financed comic-book blockbuster. Tony Stark aka Iron Man was always one of Marvel’s more interesting characters, in the hands of a deranged comics writer like Scotland’s celebrated Mark Millar he could become almost like a morally good riff on the Lex Luthor persona. A genius inventor alcoholic billionaire with a dodgy ticker has always been the short description of Stark and a good deal of Downey Jr’s screen presence as a fast-talking ironist seems to have been infused into the role and the film is a triumph because of it. The hilarious opening scenes between Stark and American soldiers in a humvee set the tone of this film which has immense fun in showing a playboy turn his life around. Downey Jr is nicely blank and subdued when Stark is kidnapped and forced to build a weapon but instead builds iron armour with high grade weapons capabilities to escape his captors, an experience that makes him resolve to stop making weapons when they can fall into the wrongs hands so easily.

For the most part though, especially the slapstick injuries he suffers when refining his new suit, Downey is having a ball Fassbendering his way through the movie. Yes, that’s a word, now. To Fassbender: to very obviously derive too much enjoyment from one’s work. See Irish actor Michael Fassbender, who spends the entirety of 300 grinning like an idiot. Downey is surrounded by equally stimulated actors. Gwyneth Paltrow is very winning in a surprisingly small role as Stark’s long suffering PA Pepper Potts. Paul Bettany whoops it up voicing Stark’s interactive computer Jarvis while fellow Brit Shaun Toub is very charismatic as Stark’s cell-mate Yinsen who helps him build his suit. Only Jeff Bridges disappoints, by neither chewing the scenery nor being truly menacing, in his role as corporate villain Obadiah Stane who is fated to become Iron Monger.

The 1960s origin myth of Stark being kidnapped by the Vietcong has been nicely updated to the Taliban (by another name). These insurgents appropriate Stark’s technology so Stark takes the fight to them in a gleeful action sequence. But there is just not enough action in this film to detract from a sense of deflation at the final set-piece showdown between Iron Man and Iron Monger that plays all too much like a deleted scene from Transformers. There is a lot to love about Iron Man, especially a running gag about a government department with an absurdly unwieldy title that pays off as a wonderful in-joke, but while this is solid it’s not quite as much delirious fun as the awesome trailer promised. Highly recommended fun nonetheless…

4/5

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