Was it just a month ago that we saw "Akeelah and the Bee," the latest inspirational film in which a young person is taught wisdom and spurred to victory by an enigmatic teacher? And was it not the very same week that we saw "Stick It," in which the ins and outs of amateur gymnastics are perused?
It was indeed, and while that is not the fault of "Peaceful Warrior," a somber drama that combines elements of both films, it is hard to overlook how tired and tiresome the movie is. Frankly, if I never see another movie where a mysterious Mr. Miyagi figure offers cryptic Zen-like advice to a brash young grasshopper, I will not consider myself any poorer.
Based on Dan Millman's autobiographical "Way of the Peaceful Warrior" and adapted by Kevin Bernhardt, the film begins with Dan (Scott Mechlowicz) as a hyper-confident U.C. Berkeley gymnast. By his own admission, he's the best athlete on his squad, he has excellent grades, and he only sleeps alone when he absolutely wants to. But he's had trouble sleeping at all lately, owing to disturbing dreams and premonitions.
One sleepless night he rides his motorcycle to a convenience store/service station where the grizzled attendant (Nick Nolte) starts offering unwanted and incomprehensible advice. He is so epigrammatic, in fact, that Dan calls him Socrates -- which is fine, since the old coot won't give his real name anyway.
Socrates' philosophy is that Dan needs to empty his mind, to focus not on the past or future but exclusively on each moment. This will improve his concentration on the gymnastics floor and enable him to achieve greater feats than he has heretofore done.
The way he teaches this is by pushing Dan in a pond in one instance and giving all his clothes to muggers in another -- cutely, in other words, the way movie characters do. (If Mr. Millman wants to claim this really happened to him, he is welcome to. But it still SEEMS fake.) Dan hollers, "You're out of your mind!" And Socrates replies, "It's taken a lifetime of practice."
Ah, clever Zen wordplay! How you bug me. The quasi-philosophy of the film is maddening, and so is the character of Socrates, who never does reveal who he is or how he does some of the impossible mental gymnastics that he's shown doing (including whisking Dan to a vision of himself sitting on the rafters of the gym while his real self walks around below). The movie toys with the idea of Socrates not even existing, but that doesn't work, because we see him interact with other characters besides Dan. So who the hell is he, and what is his DEAL?
The film is directed by convicted child molester Victor Salva, and yes, after you've confessed to having sex with a 12-year-old boy (as Salva admitted in 1988), you deserve to have it mentioned every time your name comes up. The auteur behind "Powder" and the "Jeepers Creepers" films, Salva here demonstrates his talent as a visual artist, shooting the gymnastics scenes (with cinematographer Sharone Meir) with a beautiful moodiness that borders on poetry. The attention he pays to the physical grace of the gymnasts is reverential, and not nearly as lecherous as the way he shot the stars of the second "Jeepers Creepers" (or, for that matter, "Powder").
The story, though, is extremely slow-moving, with no significant developments until halfway through, when Dan suffers an injury. The focus is on Dan's inner transformation, and while Mechlowicz is a good actor -- he was the standout in "Mean Creek" and "Eurotrip" -- he can't carry all of this film's internal agenda by himself. We're meant to see an "arc" in his character, but the differences between Beginning Dan and End-of-the-Movie Dan are subtle and few and not sufficiently conveyed.
Like so many films, it's not bad, just unnecessary. The artiness of certain scenes is nice, but the "life lessons" are annoyingly pedantic. The subject of competitiveness in gymnastics is interesting, but Dan's teammates and rivals barely register as characters. Dan's problem is trying to do things he's not capable of. You could say the same for the movie.