Escape from Laos
WERNER Herzog, German director of classics such as Aguirre, Wrath of God, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser , Fitzcarraldo and the extraordinary documentary Grizzly Man, among many others, likes to tell stories about men ( never women) who live out on the edge, adventurers whose foolhardy courage sets them apart from their peers. The amazing Klaus Kinski embodied the Herzog hero as Aguirre, the Spanish conquistador who set out on a doomed mission to locate the lost city of El Dorado, and as Fitzcarraldo, who obsessively hauled a boat over an Amazonian mountain range.
Even more extreme was Timothy Treadwell, the ‘‘ grizzly man’’ who ill- advisedly, yet passionately, courted the wild animals he loved and who, along with his girlfriend, paid a deadly price for his obsession.
In his native Germany and, more recently, in the US, Herzog has varied his output between feature films and documentaries, sometimes blending the two. His new film, Rescue Dawn, is a fictionalisation of a story he previously made as a 1997 documentary, Little Dieter Needs to Fly , the saga of a German who joined the US Navy as a fighter pilot and, on his first mission in 1965, was shot down over Laos.
Dieter Dengler is a true Herzog hero and we must assume that after making the documentary, the director decided that his miraculous story deserved a wider audience. With Christian Bale cast as Dengler, though, he makes no attempt to duplicate the real character’s strong German accent, which we hear in the documentary. Herzog has found another actor who seems willing to go all the way towards realising the director’s vision.
Opening with few preliminaries, Herzog depicts American pilots jeering at an ineptly made instruction film ( which, nevertheless, will prove useful later on), then almost immediately cuts to the chase: Dengler is shot down and captured by Laotian tribesmen.
At an isolated jungle camp he is tortured and, along with other prisoners, including Duane ( Steve Zahn) and Gene ( Jeremy Davies), is starved; in some particularly confronting scenes he’s forced to eat a plate full of writhing worms and a live snake to survive.
Politics doesn’t enter into all of this; there’s no sense in the film that Dengler, who volunteered to side with the Americans in the Vietnamese conflict, is an invader. On the contrary, the Laotians and Vietnamese who mistreat him and the other Americans are the bad guys. As the film’s title suggests, Dengler and his mates are eventually able to escape, but at that stage the film is far from over; Herzog could be criticised for taking far too long to tell what is basically a simple story of endurance and survival.
Protracted the film may be, but it has powerful elements, though it’s not up there with the best work of this formidable auteur. Bale gives a convincing performance but is almost overshadowed by Zahn, another eccentric actor who seems made for collaboration with Herzog. The emaciated Davies, the most mannered actor in the business, looks the part but gives a problematic performance.
* * * NEIL Simon’s screenplay The Heartbreak Kid , which was based on a magazine story, A Change of Plan by Bruce Jay Friedman, was filmed by director Elaine May in 1972. It was the story of a rather naive young man, played by Charles Grodin, who in a short time meets and marries a Jewish princess, played by Jeannie Berlin, the director’s daughter, and who lives to regret it, especially when, on their honeymoon, he meets the gorgeous Cybill Shepherd. So snappy is the film’s opening that the couple have met and married within the first five minutes, including opening credits.
It’s one of those films that, if you liked it, you wouldn’t want to see remade, especially if it’s going to be botched. Sadly, Bobby and Peter Farrelly have botched it. This is mainly because the sibling directors are vulgarians at heart. In their most famous film, There’s Something about Mary , they succeeded in getting laughs from the most embarrassing sexual situations, but in their remake of May’s film their main source of humour is gutter language and unusually candid sex scenes.
Ben Stiller plays the Grodin role and, in a part not to be found in the original, his real- life father, Jerry, plays his screen father, an awful old man whose advice to his son about how to find and keep a woman is gross but not at all funny. This is a bad start and the film compounds it thereafter.
The basic idea is still amusing in a painful sort of way and the lengths to which Stiller Jr goes to prevent his bride ( Malin Akerman) from meeting the other woman ( Michelle Monaghan) he has fallen for on their honeymoon still rates a few chuckles. But the desperation with which the Farrellys add smut to the mix diminishes the comedy. I know I’m probably sounding like a prude — and I’m not, not at all — but this is one case in which a more subtle approach would have paid dividends.
Tale of endurance and survival: Steve Zahn, who almost steals the show, and Christian Bale in Rescue Dawn
Heartbreak of a remake: Ben Stiller and Michelle Monaghan