American national traumas in Iran, Lebanon, and—explicitly—Vietnam are appeased after the fact by Rules of Engagement, a crisp but glib drama that is also director William Friedkin’s latest shot at redemption. Friedkin hit with such ’70s thrillers as The French Connection and The Exorcist, but those garish successes led him to accept increasingly nasty and stupid scripts, including Jade, To Live and Die in L.A., and the notorious gay-leather-scene slasher flick Cruising. No wonder he was attracted to a story about a disgraced journeyman who turns out to have been right.
That journeyman is USMC Col. Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson), who’s accused of overreacting while on a mission to rescue the weaselly American ambassador to Yemen (Ben Kingsley) from an angry mob that includes women and children. In the heat of the confrontation, Childers seems to snap, ordering his troops to fire on the unruly but allegedly unarmed protesters rather than the snipers who are shown shooting at the embassy. To defend himself at the court-martial orchestrated by treacherous National Security Adviser William Sokal (Bruce Greenwood) and prosecuted by steely but slightly hysterical Maj. Mark Biggs (Aussie actor Guy Pearce), Childers enlists Col. Hays Hodges (Tommy Lee Jones), an old combat buddy who insists he’s not worthy of the job.
As we already know, Childers has saved the ambassador, his wife (dutiful Anne Archer), and the rest of the embassy’s inhabitants. Now his task is to redeem Hodges, who turned to drink after a near-death experience in ‘Nam and a subsequent failed marriage. Hodges says he isn’t up to the task, but he has to be: First, because Childers has already saved Hodges’ life once, in battle. And second, because that’s the way it always turns out when immature or burned-out lawyers take a crucial case in such Rules of Engagement prototypes as A Few Good Men and The Verdict.
Friedkin also proves up to the challenge, providing a lively mix of combat, courtroom, and soul-searching. Too bad Stephen Gaghan’s screenplay (from a story by former Secretary of the Navy James Webb) turns on the wholly improbable notion that, among the hundreds of people at the embassy that day, Childers is the only honest man who actually saw what happened. Of course, we would have all seen the shootout if the camera hadn’t averted its gaze, coyly pretending that a major movie star in a role like this might be guilty of murder or even miscalculation.
Rules of Engagement has been both praised and condemned as right-wing, but its fundamental politics are mainstream Hollywood: Establishment figures are always corrupt, and populist mavericks always blameless in flicks like this. Still, it is remarkable that the movie is so plainly about Vietnam. The action opens there in 1968, during the ambush that linked Childers and Hodges for life, and when Childers is accused of being a baby-killer, protesters spit on him—an explicit reference to the way Vietnam veterans were (occasionally) received in the war-weary U.S. Indeed, the trial finally returns to that fateful ambush, with the result that Childers is spiritually exonerated for an act that is technically a war crime. The film’s final gesture is Hollywood’s most audacious pro-Vietnam-vet statement ever, even if the scenes that precede that moment are too formulaic and deceptive to support its weight.
If James Toback could direct, he’d be dangerous. For some 25 years, however, he’s been merely tiresome.
Toback’s new Black and White purports to investigate the contentious (yawn) issue of white teenagers who emulate African-American rappers, athletes, and gangsters. As usual, though, the writer-director merely dallies with his chosen topic, attempting to juice the proceedings with kinky sex and random violence. It’s the same approach he’s taken since his early career, when his characters were gangsters or—in the particularly hilarious Exposed—a concert violinist, a fashion model, and a terrorist. (Toback’s characters are frequently upscale types inexorably drawn to some sort of underworld.) Since he made a modest comeback with 1989’s The Big Bang, a personal documentary, the director has also frequently employed improvisation and low-budget, mock-documentary techniques.
Toback’s previous flick was Two Girls and a Guy, and his latest opens with two (white) girls and a (black) guy in a three-way sexual encounter in Central Park. The girls are rich, spoiled high-schoolers (one of them played by scene-maker, fashion model, recording artist, and recent Playboy playmate Bijou Phillips); the guy is Rich (Wu-Tang’s Power), a gangster who’s decided to go straight—into being a music-biz fixer. Toback’s always had a thing for models-turned-putative-actresses, and here he casts Brooke Shields as Sam, who’s making a documentary about white kids applying for Hiphop Nation green cards; uberblonde Claudia Schiffer as Greta, an anthropology graduate student who’s dating a black college basketball star; and Marla Maples as somebody’s mother.
Most of the male leads represent a different world. In addition to Power, who also served as the film’s music supervisor, the Wu-Tangers include Method Man and Raekwon. New York Knick Allan Houston is Greta’s sometime boyfriend Dean and—in one of those mock-doc gambits—Mike Tyson and Vanity Fair writer George Wayne appear as themselves. (The director also cast himself as a shifty recording-studio owner.) Toback regular Robert Downey Jr. plays Sam’s bisexual husband, Terry, who hits on Tyson in an improvised bit, and Ben Stiller plays an NYPD cop who vainly tries to inject some plot into this awkward cocktail party of a movie.
He fails, of course. Although the director may imagine himself on the verge of a cross-cultural breakthrough, the most striking thing about Black and White is how aimless it all seems. The semi-improvised script is spiked with betrayal, conspiracy, and even murder, but the haphazard asides—like Greta’s discovery of ancient matriarchal societies—are given as much weight as the consequences of the slaying. Rather than find a moral, sociological, or even narrative vantage point, Toback simply goes with the flow. Which flows nowhere.
The use of fetishes takes many forms. People consume cobra blood, bear bile, and pulverized rhinoceros horn in attempts to acquire certain qualities of those animals. Others divine the future in chicken entrails or cast spells with fingernail clippings and locks of hair. None of these practices are any more senseless than the premise of Return to Me, in which the fetish is a human heart.
The heart initially belongs to Elizabeth (Joely Richardson), a primatologist rapturously married to Bob (David Duchovny), who’s a builder or architect or something. Shortly after the credits, Elizabeth is killed in a car crash, leaving Bob (and the couple’s dog and Elizabeth’s favorite gorilla) bereft. But Elizabeth’s heart lives on, beating in the chest of Grace (Minnie Driver), an aspiring painter who works at her grandfather’s Irish-Italian (ho ho!) restaurant with a crew of avuncular codgers. The premise of this wannabe romantic would-be comedy, the first movie directed by bit-part veteran Bonnie Hunt, is that the transplanted heart somehow connects Grace to Elizabeth’s enduring life force. For all I know, if Grace decided to apply to college, she could use Elizabeth’s SATs.
Upon meeting Grace, the dog and the gorilla instantly bond with her, and it takes Bob only a few minutes longer. Of course, Bob eventually discovers Grace’s grisly link to Elizabeth, which presents him with a quandary. Oh, not really. There are no quandaries in Return to Me, not to mention no conflict, no laughs, no insight, no passion, no humanity. Just stale schtick and sheer unadulterated ick. And bit parts for Hunt, Jim Belushi, and Carroll O’Connor.
Return to Me is one of those new-old big-screen sitcoms in which the post-discovery-of-HIV era is indistinguishable from the pre-pill epoch. Set in the Chicago that John Hughes built—a wonderland of middle-class virtue, heartland earnestness, and cuddly, interchangeable ethnics—the movie is cued to the music of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. Grace has never been kissed, Bob never gets close enough to see her scar, and even the Token Black Friend (David Alan Grier) has apparently never heard of hiphop. If the movie’s premise is medieval, it’s only slightly more antique than the setting. CP