Film Reviews

La Vida So-So

In 1846, Mexico was in a state of disarray, as various bandits and warlords roamed the land jockeying for power. Knowing an opportunity when he saw one, U.S. President James Polk sent the Army down to the border to prepare for an invasion, hoping to gain control of the Santa Fe trade routes and more of the Pacific coast. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the potato famine had devastated Ireland, causing a mass exodus by sea to America, where the offer of citizenship was extended to the families of any young men who would join the U.S. Army. Not having any other options, most of the immigrants agreed and found themselves under the command of Protestant-Americans, pitted against the Mexicans, who, like the Irish, were strongly Catholic. With anti-immigrant fervor high, and religious differences proving to be as divisive as they had ever been, something had to give.

It's a great setup, isn't it? Religious prejudice, immigrant-bashing, a sweeping global canvas, and it's all based on a true story to boot. Throw in some Hollywood-style romance, and you might think that One Man's Hero would be an Oscar-winner in the making. Perhaps it would be if it were handled with any kind of flair or anchored around a charismatic star.

Instead, we get the direction of Lance Hool (producer of the big-screen Flipper and McHale's Navy) and a lead performance by Tom Berenger (who also served as co-producer). Not that Berenger's completely incapable of being charismatic; he excels in dumb-fun actioners such as The Substitute -- provided he gets to beat up a lot of people and generally keep his mouth shut. Forcing him to emote, however, is a risk. Forcing him to emote while wearing fake sideburns, a televangelist hairdo, and an absurdly fake Irish accent? Suicidal. (In all fairness, he does ditch the fake sideburns halfway through.) Playing American deserter Sergeant John Riley, Berenger seems to have modeled himself on Mel Gibson in Braveheart (he gets to make impassioned speeches about freedom while a rousing instrumental score tries to compensate for his lack of emotion), but he comes closer to Kevin Costner's sleepwalking rendition of Robin Hood. He's eminently passable as a soldier in the heat of battle, but the forced romantic scenes (with Mexican TV star Daniela Romo) are initiated with the line, "You're more woman than any woman I've ever known," and go downhill from there.

It's not all his fault, though. Director Hool is apparently under the impression that a soaring soundtrack is all an audience needs in order to be moved, and screenwriter Milton S. Gelman seems to be writing military strategy rather than a script. (1. Have the characters move one place. 2. Then another. 3. Then somewhere else. Who cares why they do it? Just get them there.) Admittedly, there's not a lot of room to play with historical fact, but trying to understand the motivations of the characters would be a good start.

When the movie begins, Berenger's Sergeant Riley is listening to imprisoned Irish soldiers complain about religious discrimination and telling them to get used to it. He then goes to a superior officer to ask permission to go to Mass, even though that will mean attending a Mexican church. His superiors grudgingly allow it. While at the church, Riley sees other members of his squad, whom he promptly turns in for not having asked permission to go. When these men are punished, Riley gets mad because the punishment is unduly harsh (he couldn't have seen that coming, given the relentless religious discrimination?) and breaks all the men out, running away with them across the Mexican border. Why now? What makes this the breaking point? Berenger's stone face offers no clues, and neither does the script. Just get them to Mexico, because that's how it happened.

The meat of the story, of course, is in Riley and company's formation of the San Patricios, a special battalion for Irish deserters that would fight alongside the Mexican army in exchange for citizenship. Unfortunately, Hool decides to waste our time with a contrived love triangle involving Riley, bandit turned soldier Cortina (Joaquim de Almeida), and Cortina's girlfriend, Marta (Romo). Whereas most directors would have ended the story shortly after the San Patricios heroically fight their last great battle against suicidal odds, Hool keeps on going. And going. Riley survives execution and prison; he has to conclude the love-triangle story, no matter how long it takes. Even when that seems to be resolved, a voice-over narration, heretofore unheard, suddenly kicks in to read us about a paragraph's worth of summation and speculation about Riley's final fate. You'll be long past caring by then.

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Luke Y. Thompson