Title: Peaceful Warrior
Genre: Drama, Romance, Sport
Director: Victor Salva
Screenwriters: Kevin Bernhard
Starring: Scott Mechlowicz, Nick Nolte, Amy Smart
The film does not even begin with a respite. One might expect a film purportedly about a hotshot gymnast (Scott Mechlowitz) who turns to a mysterious sensei (Nick Nolte) after a motorcycle accident threatens his ability to walk again, never mind compete again, to at least give us a few minutes of conventional sports action before the protagonist’s downfall leads him to contemplate a barrage of self-help maxims. But no: cocky showoff Dan Millman immediately encounters the unsubtly named Socrates, who can apparently leap medium-sized garages in a single bound, and immediately begins to be fed pearls like “knowledge is not the same as wisdom” and “you can live your whole life without ever being awake.”
In point of fact, Socrates’ advice, if followed literally, seems like it would lead to a miserable existence. Poor, impressionable Dan is told never to think about the past or consider the future — “live in the moment” is Socrates’ mantra, to the extent he has a coherent one, and from what I understand, that bars thinking. Another mantra is “there’s always something going on,” and interpreted charitably, the film seems to be advising people to concentrate on achieving a certain hyper-awareness: an acutely developed sense of everything around them at a given point. But in advising Dan to “take out the trash” — anything other than “the moment” — in his brain, Socrates is prohibiting a lot of things: introspection, intellectual curiosity, any sort of wider perspective on the present. It doesn’t sound promising.
The movie also has a few disturbing peripheral suggestions, such as that no one is ever better or less than anyone else — conjuring up all sorts of visions of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” and The Incredibles. This is one of several disconcerting ideas the screenplay introduces without elaboration; another is the notion of giving up one’s worldly possessions and dedicating one’s life to service. Sounds good, but the film makes no attempt to put any of this in the context of its general philosophy, and we’re left to scratch our heads: what does this have to do with “living in the moment,” exactly? Peaceful Warrior seems unconcerned with whether its self-help theories are tenable or even coherent.
Salva tries hard to keep things interesting and sometimes succeeds. He works with an appropriate amount of solemn grandeur — I liked how the motorcycle accident, shown in super-super-slow-motion, is made to look like a particularly impressive flip — and even the screenplay’s chintziest contrivances take on a sort of elegance. Gymnastics is not a very cinematic sport, but the glossy sports action here works even despite the conspicuous abundance of stunt doubles. Notwithstanding the inevitable title cards, the ending is simple, effective, and even rather moving. The filmmaker has a feel for this stuff, and the actors, including the convincing Mechlowitz and the appropriately grizzled Nolte, help complete the illusion of professionalism.
The illusion is shattered by the fact that Peaceful Warrior makes no frickin’ sense. The material is so aggressively stupid and ill-considered that only the laughable “based on true events” title card can explain its successful journey to the big screen. The fact that, as a general matter, I look favorably upon overcooked melodrama should give you a sense of the heights of Peaceful Warrior‘s silliness.