During his long career as an actor, Martin Sheen has stepped into the director's chair only twice: once for a 1986 ABC "Afterschool Special" about teenage pregnancy, and once for an adaptation of Gordon Weaver's novel "Count a Lonely Cadence." The film - which shortened the title to simply "Cadence" - barely registered during its limited theatrical run, although it did manage to pick up a minor following once it landed on cable and home video, thanks to a pleasant vibe that plays better on the small screen.
Set in 1965, "Cadence" stars Charlie Sheen as PFC Franklin Bean, who recovers from his father's death by getting drunk, getting tattooed, and punching an MP. He hopes this will be his way out of the Army, but the brass have other plans, locking him away in a stockade run by the prickly MSgt. McKinney (Martin Sheen). McKinney, a racist and a bully, has a plan to whip Bean into shape: toss him in with the black prisoners.
You can see where this is headed: after initial struggles, the prisoners will welcome Bean as one of their own, Bean will learn the value of teamwork, and McKinney will get his comeuppance, all while the viewer learns important lessons on racial justice and sticking it to the Man.
And if that sounds iffy enough, consider how the script, adapted by screenwriter Dennis Shryack ("Pale Rider," "Rent-a-Cop"), has the black prisoners marching in self-proclaimed "Soul Patrol" style, grooving to the beat while singing Sam Cooke's "Chain Gang." An idea like this is tacky at best and embarrassing at worst, with the blacks serving as shuck-and-jiving supporters to the white character's central conflict.
Surprisingly, "Cadence" mostly avoids such troubles, partly through its good intentions, partly by beefing up the secondary roles (thus avoiding them becoming one-dimensional types), and partly from a collection of sharp performances, most notably Laurence Fishburne as the cool-headed leader of the prisoners. The cast, which also includes Michael Beach, Blu Mankuma, John Toles-Bay, and Harry Stewart among the prisoners and James Marshall and Ramon Estevez (!) among the guards, carries us through the proceedings with great ease, building genuine characters out of stock situations.
Because of this, even when the story grows to its most overreaching (with strained symbolism in the form of a windmill the prisoners band together to fix), we stick with it. The film may be obvious, predictable, and all too familiar, but its characters have an unexpected amount of depth, and when combined with the amount of heart put into the performances, "Cadence" becomes a simple yet thoroughly watchable tale.
Don't be fooled by the new artwork: Lionsgate's recent release of "Cadence" is a direct port of the earlier disc from Artisan. Nothing has been changed - we even get the Artisan logo and an ad for Artisan's now-defunct website.
Video & Audio
While the 1.33:1 pan-and-scan transfer is admittedly not at all cramped or tight, it's still pan-and-scan, and that stinks, especially today. (A widescreen release is available in Region 2.) The transfer, leftover from the 2001 disc (and most likely lifted from an earlier laserdisc release), is slightly grainy and plenty soft. The Dolby stereo soundtrack is passable but unimpressive. No subtitles are provided.
Just a set of (outdated) text bios for cast and crew.
The film itself is enjoyable enough to be worth a look, but Lionsgate couldn't even bother to update a single thing for this re-release, and that's just ridiculous. Worse still, it's doubtful that we'll see anything better for this movie in the coming years. Rent It.