We’ve been saying since we launched Warped Perspective that we’d be covering a fairly broad selection of what could be termed ‘genre’ cinema, but it’s taken me until now to really put this into action. And, it has to be said, I elected to watch a film which was always going to pose certain issues for me. See, the star of the ‘based on a true story’ comedy, Army of One, is none other than Nicholas Cage. I have respect for Cage, as he’s been acting for a long time, and to be fair, he’s been in some films which I very much like – usually when his character is having the worst time of his life, now I think of it, such as in Leaving Las Vegas. However, in other roles, I find Cage’s jittery, manic stylings incredibly challenging to watch. It’s too intense; it saps the life out of the rest of the film (his performance in Vampire’s Kiss still hurts my mind). But if I veer between grudging admiration and utter exasperation when I watch Cage on screen, then it’s nothing compared to my feelings about Russell Brand, who also features here – as none other than God, a role Brand may well have felt very comfortable playing. So, a challenging cast, and a divisive director (Larry Charles, who gave us Borat). Army of One was sizing up to be a challenging prospect…
The film is based on the story of an American man, Gary Faulkner, a guy who divides his time between building-site jobs and sleeping on friends’ couches – that is, until he hears the voice of God. Isn’t it always the way? God (Brand) wants more done on the War on Terror – which was still raging at the time the film is set – and specifically, he tells Faulkner that he has to bring down …Bin Laden himself. God doesn’t want Bin Laden killed, mind, but he wants him brought to justice. Ours not to reason why an omnipotent being wouldn’t just do this for themselves – I don’t suppose it really matters. Fact is, God has asked Faulkner, and commands him to go to Pakistan, where he must retrieve Bin Laden and bring him home. Although Faulkner is the sort of man given to impromptu rants about how great America is and how ‘more should be done’ to combat Al-Qaeda, he’s understandably perplexed about how to proceed, and his attention wavers further when he meets and starts dating an old crush from his school days, Marci (Wendi McLendon-Covey). Before too long, though, pressure from Him Upstairs leads Gary to an array of hair-brained schemes to fulfil his new duty – which finally takes him out to the Middle East with little more than blind ambition and a shopping-channel samurai sword to help him.
Hmm. It all sounds endearing enough, and based on the real-life footage of Faulkner woven in to the film as the end credits roll, he’s an oddly likeable miscreant in his own right – but how it comes to pass on screen just doesn’t quite work for me. I’m not knocking the film’s surreal ambition: it certainly doesn’t lack for variety. There’s a reasonable budget, for one thing, accompanied by lots of everything – fast edits, a voiceover, dream sequences and a vast array of scenes shot on location in Morocco (Morocco playing Pakistan here). There are even cameos from the Supreme Being him/her/itself, though it’s Brand playing Brand i.e. an oddly charmless deity more given to loose drapery and big words. Maybe there’s just too much going on, actually, when the madcap story being told here could have carried a great deal further with calmer handling, allowing Faulkner’s eccentricity to speak more for itself. If not that, then more physical comedy could have worked; some of the pratfalls in the film did raise a laugh from me. Instead of reigning anything in, though, or taking one successful approach, Army of One opts for relentless explication, being absolutely loaded with dialogue which tells us, over and over, what is happening and what could happen. (Spoiler alert: one lone ill-equipped American didn’t actually find Bin Laden, and the plot of the film doesn’t dare deviate too far from this.)
Unfortunately, plot development in this yarn is thin on the ground, and all the talking here presumably stands in for that. Army of One is choc-full of airports, flights, wandering the streets, returning to the US to have a rethink, but not a great deal else. In fact, to paraphrase a famous Waiting for Godot review (see, Brand, you’re not the only one who can be a pretentious twat) it’s a film where nothing happens – everywhere. The footage of real-life Faulkner at the end is more engaging than the version of events that makes up the movie, and I can’t help but think that a well-handled, naturally funny documentary film would have been the better way to go. Oh, and there’s even an oh-so self-knowing moment of meta-cinema late on which comments on the casting of Cage, one which doesn’t lead to anything much or make much sense. Army of One is fussy and overwrought, an attractive-looking film, but one which quickly collapses under its own weight.
Army of One is available on DVD and Blu-Ray via Arrow Films now.