Since his Oscar win for a memorable role as prima donna wide receiver Rod Tidwell in Jerry Maguire and critical acclaim for the performance delivered in As Good As It Gets, Cuba Gooding Jr. seems to have been searching for the right vehicle for his unique on-screen personality. His wincing expressions of grim determination and inner turmoil have always seemed plug-and-play ready for action roles, a genre he has explored recently through a series of half-great pictures and direct-to-video misses like Linewatch and End Game.
Therefore, upon seeing the cover art for the DVD release of First Look Studios’ Way of War, Gooding dressed in fatigues with an assault rifle at the ready and eyes blazing for a fight, I was open-minded to the possibilities. After the first forty-five minutes of patient screening of the film, any vision I may have had for Cuba Gooding Jr.’s future as an action star would only be an alternate reality, perhaps actualized in some parallel universe but certainly not here on Earth.
Borrowing a line from the expansive library of Monty Python, this is not a film for viewing, this is a film for laying down and avoiding.
That opinion is not offered cavalierly. The minimum amount of sweat, labor, and time invested in the making of even a small budget film is worthy of credit, but an A for effort is meaningless when consumers of entertainment have less in their wallet to spend. This freshman effort from screenwriters John Carter and Scott Schafer, if assessed only on visual criteria, comes across as a well-shot movie, and that certainly is reason to offer some credit to Carter for pulling double-duty to direct Way of War and either lending a hand to the director of photography or choosing to get out of his way. In either case, the attention to lighting and composition, as well as mood-setting coloring in post-production, are really the only elements that may persuade home viewers to delay hitting the eject button.
But even the best camerawork only produces a pleasing parade of color, light, and motion. The images need a story for context and to keep an audience’s attention. From the very opening, Way of War is a jumble of flashbacks and unconnected sequences that do not advance the plot or reveal enough about the characters and do little more than slow the pace of the film and confuse the viewer. More importantly, it disrupts any opportunities that might have existed to flesh out the main character and motivate us to want to know what motivates him. As it plays, even a cast of solid supporting actors (most notably J.K. Simmons of The Closer, Juno, and the Spider-Man movies and John Terry of Lost and 24) are helpless to rescue the film.
As a basic pitch, the concept would have seemed solid to anyone in charge of greenlighting the project. Gooding plays Wolf, a paramilitary operative working for the United States government, who learns about a conspiracy of the president’s cabinet and Middle Eastern terrorists while on a mission designed to ensure his own death and keep the schemes a secret. Wolf defies the odds for survival and returns to the nation’s capital to confront his masters. The powers-that-be murder his fiancée as a warning, while they actively try to eliminate him. Channeling his pain and rage into a quest for revenge, as the DVD jacket proclaims, “He has a single mission. To expose the truth.” The formula is tested but still has enough room to customize with an original twist. With the implied promise of heavy action, and scenes taut with suspense and intrigue, the story should have been a straight path to box office bronze, if not gold, when handled properly.
Somewhere between the studio pitch and the final edit, some inexplicable decisions must have been made, resulting in the haphazard interweaving of times, places and characters, out-of-context montage sequences, and an almost total lack of action.
(There should be a hard and fast rule in Hollywood that by using the word “war” in the title and developing promotional materials around images of the main character holding a gun, more than thirty rounds should be fired in the course of the story.)
Perhaps the aspiration of the creators was to weave their story a la Hitchcock, revealing little or nothing about the real plot to the audience as a means of enhancing the tension, but the genius of Hitchcock was in having the audience identify with his main character, a person who had been thrust into a lethal confluence of circumstances, but who themselves were not aware of how they fit into them. We watch in anticipation of answers to the big questions – who, what and why? – that would be revealed to us as they were discovered by the main character. In Way of War, the writers have constructed a story in which we watch the main character move about in the aftermath of events that he was involved in, we are told that he knows the truth about them, but he refuses to let us in on the secret thus depriving us from connecting with any motivations driving Wolf.
Supporting characters appear and disappear without moving the plot along. Nonsensical dialogue ensues as, in one notable example, Gooding’s character taunts his would-be assassin with an interrogation that ends with the phrase, “It doesn’t take three licks to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop.” Gooding’s delivery is straight, not tongue-in-cheek; no obvious attempt to unseat Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger as King of the Catch-Phrase. Your creative writing assignment for the week is to write a scene that uses that line of dialogue and manages to retain its realism. I dare you.
Is Way of War one of those cases we never hear about when a box office-obsessed studio exec’s intrusion into the process would have improved the picture? Sticking to a proven formula could have given the filmmakers an opportunity to land a solid dive from the lower platform; a fantastic goal for a team of first-time writers. Instead, because of undisciplined overreaching, Way of War attempts the high dive and ends up crash-landing by the pool.