"Sometimes you have to lose your mind before you come to your senses." - 'Socrates'
Dan Millman's best-selling Way of the Peaceful Warrior was first published in 1980 and has since been recognized as one of the more popular books in the self-help community. Written in autobiographical form, it chronicles Millman's experiences as a competitive gymnast at the University of California and his chance encounter with a wise old gas station attendant he refers to as "Socrates". Teaching through example and using unexplained mystical powers to his advantage, Socrates seeks to break down Millman's conventional thought and show him the way of the "Peaceful Warrior", transforming him into a better gymnast and a better person. A quarter-century after the release of the book, the story is now told in a major motion picture from Lionsgate Films.
Dan Millman (Scott Mechlowicz) is a cocky young gymnast preparing to compete in the Olympic trials. Despite his popularity on campus and his clear athletic talents, something is missing in his life, and he is haunted by recurring dreams of disaster and failure. One night, after a particularly vivid nightmare, he takes a 3am jog to a convenience store at a nearby service station and meets a soft-spoken and cryptic old man (Nick Nolte) who performs an act that seems to defy the laws of physics. Intrigued by how the strange man accomplished this feat, Dan returns each night to learn life lessons and wisdom from the man he jokingly calls "Socrates". Over the course of many months, the two engage in philosophical discussion as Socrates tries to teach the young gymnast to stop lamenting the past and obsessing about the future and simply live in the now. When an accident threatens to destroy Dan's career, he turns to his mentor for guidance in hopes of one day competing again.
Peaceful Warrior tries to be two things: a philosophical guide to spiritual enlightenment and a rousing sports film. It fails at both. On the DVD cover it reads, "Like Rocky for the soul!", but the sporting elements of this film are not in the spirit of Rocky or Rudy or any other film where an average individual triumphs over incredible odds through hard work and perseverance. If anything, Peaceful Warrior is akin to The Karate Kid, if one can imagine Mr. Miyagi mentoring the spoiled Johnny Lawrence instead of the hapless Daniel LaRusso (and if Miyagi has magic powers). Dan is self-involved and annoying and not the easiest character to root for, which could be the makings of a film that takes an unlikable individual through a journey of enlightenment to become a better person, but the effort to accomplish this falls flat as he seems motivated more by the script than any internal character consistency. On the flipside, the philosophical aspects of the film rarely achieve any level of realism or honesty. Too much attention is paid to Socrates' mystical powers that it completely undermines the genuinely good advice the work is trying to convey.
Much of this can be laid at the feet of director Victor Salva, a convicted child molester who is an incredibly peculiar choice for a film of this nature in terms of both talent and publicity. Nolte delivers a solid performance in the role of the wise sage, and Mechlowicz is competent enough in the lead to not be a distraction (and Tim Dekay adds some needed realism with excellent work as Dan's gymnastics coach); but the screenplay is a disaster, and one of the bonus features about the making of the film confirms the obvious: that numerous screenwriters attempted to prepare this novel for the screen, and when they failed, it was left to the director (Salva) to piece all their work together into a film. What results is a disjointed array of scenes that lack a coherent narrative, a collection of favorite quotes and events from the book cobbled together in a manner that sabotages what momentum the film is trying to build.
Take the character of Joy (Amy Smart), who shows up briefly in a couple of scenes as an object of Dan's affection, but whose purpose seems only to remind the audience that there is a character named Joy and that it's important to acknowledge. If you've read the book, you understand how important and meaningful Joy is to Dan's growth, but in the film, she's just one of many aspects of Peaceful Warrior that makes it closer to a checklist than an effective tale. The effort to cram everything from the book into a two-hour story leaves the important moments feeling hollow and creates a situation where the film is not long enough, and yet at the same time it feels way too long. On top of that, shoe-horning it into a typical sports formula, complete with training montages in the rain, just distracts from the more meaningful parts of the story that could be effective.
In the end, Peaceful Warrior fails to achieve either of its goals. As a sports film, it's just not that interesting or compelling. The editing between the actors and their professional gymnast counterparts is clunky and obvious, and Bennett Salvay's musical score is completely over-the-top and downright obnoxious. As an exercise in personal growth, it also misses the mark. For all the nuggets of wisdom buried within the story, and there are plenty of them, Socrates is presented as little more than a Yoda-like aphorism dispenser, a man you might see selling audio tapes on self-actualization during late-night infomercials, prefacing every instructional statement with "A warrior ..." to the point where you half expect him to break out with, "Adventure. Excitement. A warrior craves not these things." I wanted to like this film -- I really did -- because its messages about living life in the moment and learning to appreciate the journey over the destination are important and valuable, but as a two-hour movie, it simply does not work.
Peaceful Warrior is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, and it looks great. There is a wide variety of shooting locales in the film, and they all blend together nicely in the final product. There are a couple of scenes where skin tones appear a little off, but overall, it's a strong video presentation without any noticeable flaws in the transfer to DVD. The menus also look very nice and match the general tone of the film. The video quality is not as strong on the bonus features, and there is a great deal of artifacting in "The Journey" and "Developing Your Warrior".
The English Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix on this release does not meet the standards of the video. While the main feature is predominantly clean, the musical cues and special effects are not balanced well with the dialogue, and it makes for many scenes where one aspect is either too loud or too soft. Also, the bonus features exhibit numerous audio fidelity problems that go along with the video issues mentioned before.
Subtitles are provided for the feature presentation in English, Spanish, and French. Most of the bonus features are subtitled as well.
WHISTLES & BELLS:
Accompanying the feature presentation are 6 bonus features:
- Deleted Scenes (9:24): There are 6 "deleted scenes" presented, a couple that add some more depth to the Joy character, and a few that are just extended versions of scenes that made the final cut. They don't add much to the story, but they're not terrible either.
- Extended Scenes (5:01): Considering that some of the "deleted scenes" are just "extended scenes", this separation seems strange, but there are 4 more of them here.
- "The Journey" (25:05): A mini-documentary about the creation of the film. Watching this was interesting, because it confirmed most of the things I suspected about the production when I first saw the feature.
- "Developing Your Warrior" (11:11): Footage from interviews with people who have been affected by the story, including the author Dan Millman.
- Book to Screen: 14 passages from the book in text form that can be selected to watch the corresponding scene from the film.
- "I'm There Too" (3:39) - Michelle Featherstone's music video, cut together with loosely connected scenes from the film.
Dan Millman's Way of the Peaceful Warrior is not a profoundly original piece of autobiographical fiction, but it is a pretty decent read, and it contains some truth and wisdom that people might be able to apply to their lives. Presented as a film in the form of Peaceful Warrior, it's a jumbled mess, a greatest hits of quotes and situations from the book without a solid narrative to drive the story. Trying to be both a sports film and a self-help guide, it is burdened by numerous clichés of both and succeeds at achieving neither. Despite the poor script, the acting is strong, there are a few moments of genuine humor, and the underlying messages are worthy of attention; but on the whole, it isn't very engaging or powerful. If you're interested in the source material, you may want to check out the book, but when it comes to Peaceful Warrior the film, I suggest you Rent It.