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Two films have opened of late with heroes who tune into spiritual forces for guidance in their lives, forces outside the natural world around us.
The first is Doctor Strange, the latest, for those of you who have moved to Mars, Marvel comic book hero, a Rodney Dangerfield of a character because he never gets any respect from devoted Marvel readers. When they muse over why this movie may not be quite as good as others in the canon, they sigh and tend to say, well, he only appeared in the back of the comic, you know.
And they are to some degree correct in their assessment. Certainly Doctor Strange the film doesn’t come up to the level of the original Iron Man or some of the X-Men movies. But it’s not as bad as they claim either.
The story revolves around a brilliant, but egotistical, neurosurgeon, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who only believes in the material world (he’s a sort of a what you see is what you get type of person). But after a serious automobile accident, he finds himself unable to perform surgery because his hands are shattered.
He tries every method known to man to fix the situation. And when those don’t work, he decides to try a method of the unknown kind.
Enter Tilda Swanton, who joins the not so long but certainly lustrous list of actresses like Persis Khambatta and Sigourney Weaver by going bald headed for her role. She’s the guru of a Tibetan monastery who promises Strange that, if he’s a good boy and learns humility and cultivates a belief in alternate universes, he’ll be able to regain use of his hands.
And just in the nick of time, too. Because one of the laws of the Marvel Universe is that when there is an action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, or as it is more commonly known, when a superhero appears, a supervillain appears at the exact same time (here Mads Mickelson trying as hard to become an international star as Strange is in trying to regain his hands).
Doctor Strange, all in all, is a rather entertaining film. Part of this is due to extremely well structured plot. In fact, it’s one of the best plotted stories in Marveldom movie history. Written by the director Scott Derrickson and writing partners Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill, it manages to efficiently combine an origin story with the more usual good guy v. bad guy, save the universe from an apocalypse tale. It’s clever and smart from this perspective.
It also has these, like cool, man, really cool special effects as the characters enter alternate planes of existence where buildings grow and curve, becoming, with kaleidoscopic grace, stepping stones in an attempt to grind people to death, along with fiery weapons appearing out of thin air, as well as a cape with the personality of a nagging mate.
I mean, these are pretty spectacular.
Every time one of these episodes ends, you have to hold yourself back from saying, “Oooooh, trippy”.
But in the end, the movie really doesn’t work as well as it might and ultimately falls short.
I think the main issue is the character of Strange. He’s written as a cross between House and Tony Stark. But either the writers can’t get the tone quite right (and it does feel a little bit Stark lite) or Cumberbatch, who normally excels at playing eccentric geniuses like this (Sherlock Holmes and Alan Turing), can’t quite pull it off. And his flat American accent probably doesn’t help.
The supporting cast is solid and much better. Swinton almost saves the day (as she has been known to do in many a flick) and Mickelson is a good villain. Rachel McAdams is excellent in the thankless and somewhat dull role of the kinda, sorta, but not quite love interest.
The oddest character might be Dr. West (Michael Stuhlbarg), a fellow surgeon that Strange enjoys humiliating. When Strange himself learns humility, he generously has West perform major surgery on a patient. The patient then, very ungenerous, proceeds to die. I’m not quite sure what the lesson learned here is supposed to be.
In WWI, Sergeant York tried to avoid enlisting because he didn’t believe in violence due to religious reasons. He was finally convinced to join and is known in history for killing 28 German soldiers, taking 25 machine guns and marching 132 captured German soldiers back to camp.
In the Iraq War, or more accurately perhaps, in the film American Sniper, sniper Chris Kyle is dramatized as a somewhat spiritual man who killed at least 150 enemy soldiers, regretting that he didn’t get more.
Now we have Desmond Doss, a story as true as the first two mentioned (take that for what it’s worth), who, as a medic, refused to carry a rifle into battle for religious reasons, and when he regretted not getting one more, he meant pulling one more body to safety while alone and in the midst of land inhabited by the enemy.
And during a particularly gruesome and casualty heavy fight against the Japanese that required the Americans to climb a ladder rope up a sheer cliff (hence the title Hacksaw Ridge), remained after the others retreated and lowered 75 soldiers, still alive, to the ground below, all through the night and the following day.
And with his only weapon being his faith.
And his actions were so impressive to his fellow soldiers, they refused to go back up for the next battle until Doss prayed and led them.
Is Hacksaw Ridge any good?
I’d have to say after considerable thought, “no”.
But it doesn’t matter. Hacksaw Ridge is the sort of movie that is beyond criticism. No matter how good or bad it is, at the end of it, you will be on the verge of tears and more deeply affected than you often are with movies that are good.
Andrew (formerly Peter Parker) Garfield plays Doss, and he may be the main issue here. He’s not exactly bad, but he also doesn’t bring a lot to the role except for a backwoods, aw shucks accent that is extremely distracting. But he has one powerful moment after he’s come down the mountain, still shocked and traumatized. His eyes say things his speech couldn’t quite.
There is one odd moment from the director Mel Gibson. His battle scenes are as frightening and terrifying as the D-Day scene in Saving Private Ryan. When Dos goes up the second time, after praying, and the troops engage in battle, the whole thing becomes an orgy of violence and a celebration of mass death and destruction. It seems so at odds with his hero’s philosophical leanings, one wonders whether Gibson missed the memo from Doss about trying to make the world a better place.
Hacksaw Ridge is a quintessential American story. So in keeping with Yankee cinematic tradition, almost all the parts, at least the most important ones, are played by British and Australian actors. With Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths as Doss’s parent; Nathan Buzolic as Doss’s brother; Teresa Palmer as his wife; and Sam Worthington nicely restrained as Doss’s commanding officer.
Perhaps this is the British Commonwealth’s revenge for the US always taking all the credit for winning WWI and II.
Also with Vince Vaughn excellent in a nice change of pace as Doss’s Sergeant.
Screenplay by Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight.