Es­cape from Laos

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - David Stratton

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

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