Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Ride with the Devil


Starring: Tobey Maguire, Jeffrey Wright, Jewel, Skeet Ulrich, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Simon Baker, Jonathan Brandis

Rated R for Graphic War Violence

The thing about war is that, no matter how high your ideals were when you started, eventually disillusionment sets in.  You begin to understand that reason has no place in battle.  It all boils down to killing your enemy before he kills you.  Death quickly loses its meaning.

What sets "Ride with the Devil" apart from most other war movies is that it stays away from traditional battles and concentrates on guerilla warfare.  Without any sort of structure or strategy, feuds and pointless murder quickly replace any attempt at furthering an agenda.  It's this realization that forms the heart of the film.

Jake Roedel (Maguire) is a German immigrant who, unlike most of his people, is a Confederate sympathizer.  With his best friend Jack Bull Chiles (Ulrich), he joins the Missouri militia with the hopes of protecting the Southern way of life.  But eventually they realize that what they are doing is having no effect but causing the deaths of just about everyone they know.

"Ride with the Devil" has its bright spots, but on the whole it's a rare misfire from the immensely talented Ang Lee.  The battle scenes are well-crafted and have an air of verisimilitude rarely seen on film.  They feel improvised (which they weren't).  It gives them a different and more realistic feel than many other war movies.  The film always looks great, although that's no surprise.  And the score by Mychael Danna is beautiful to listen to.

Unfortunately, the script by Lee's collaborator James Schamus is in desperate need of rewrites.  Character development is spotty and key relationships are only partially formed.  The film's themes are inadequately presented.  And the characters speak in a bizarrely archaic way that makes the film feel stiff, pretentious, and at times incomprehensible.  Most of the actors have little trouble with it, but there are some, such as the lead, who do.

It's hard to imagine a worse casting choice for the lead character than Tobey Maguire.  At best, he's adequate, but he's usually awful.  Maguire does not have great range, and the role of a soldier who loses his taste for war is way outside it.  His few good moments are when he doesn't speak.  Skeet Ulrich is a little better, but not much.  Jeffrey Wright is quite good as the black ex-slave who fights alongside them, but his role is underwritten.  Rock star Jewel is also very good as the obligatory love interest; the camera loves her and she has a natural screen presence.  Watching her on screen, I thought of Renee Zellwegger.  The supporting cast is rich and bursting with talent: Simon Baker, the late great Jonathan Brandis (who is quite good and virtually unrecognizable), Jim Caviezel, Tom Guiry, Celia Weston, Mark Ruffalo, Zach Grenier, Margo Martindale and Tom Wilkinson.  Special mention has to go to Jonathan Rhys Meyers, whose performance as the psychotic Pitt Mackeson is truly chilling.

Ang Lee has never been afraid to take a chance.  Having worked in virtually every genre, Lee is famous for his understated, emotionally focused storytelling.  But here, he's working with the wrong materials.  I like Lee's work; "Brokeback Mountain" is a beautiful love story and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is probably one of the best films ever made.  But I can't recommend this film, and I'm really sad to say it, because it could and should have been a great movie.

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