When a seemingly well-meaning movie such as “Courage Under Fire” comes along, it’s always a battle to look between the frames.
But closer study is necessary, especially for this Edward Zwickdirected movie. For on the surface, this beautifully photographed, generally well-acted movie strives to be many things - a study of gender bias, an exploration of the pressures that combat puts on those who wage it and even a celebration of the men and women who sacrifice everything for their country.
But underneath the gloss, “Courage Under Fire” ends up being something else entirely. For whatever Zwick’s intentions were - and because of “Glory,” I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt - “Courage Under Fire” boasts a plot which, bare bones, could serve as an episode of “Murder, She Wrote.”
In short, Denzel Washington portrays a U.S. Army officer who, following his own controversial service in the Gulf War, is ordered to investigate a helicopter pilot up for for a Medal of Honor. Posthumously.
But the plot complications involve much more than the fact that the deceased pilot was a woman (Meg Ryan), which would make her the first of her sex to win the Medal of Honor. As Washington’s character investigates, he discovers conflicts in the witness statements.
And, ultimately, the movie devolves into a mere murder mystery with “Rashomon”-like similarities. What might have been a fine, updated addition to the genre of war films - something that might have offset the ridiculousness of, say, Clint Eastwood’s “Heartbreak Ridge” - instead panders to popular entertainment.
There’s nothing wrong with pop entertainment, of course. But settling for less wastes all those things about “Courage Under Fire” that are superb - the cinematography, for one. Mainly, though, what gets lost is Washington’s moving performance as a man who, in his search for truth, suffers from a delayed stress that sucks him slowly into a liquor bottle.
Washington, Ryan in a small but pivotal role and Lou Diamond Phillips are the best parts of Zwick’s film. Ultimately, he undoes their efforts by following a script that fails to seek out the high ground.
Rated R **-1/2
The Hunchback of Notre Dame ***-1/2
This time Disney uses Victor Hugo’s classic novel as the basis for its near-annual animated special and the result is a Disneyfied lesson in tolerance - which means that the net result is both more and less than the movie’s source. Hugo, after all, didn’t employ any singing gargoyles. But even if Disney’s versions of reality (“Pocahontas”) and fantasy (“Aladdin”) seldom follow original sources, that doesn’t mean that they forfeit quality. Aside from the music, which is as forgettable as any five minutes of Top-40 radio, the film is both fun to watch and thrilling to behold. It’s fun because of the obligatory side characters, in this case a trio of gargoyles as best friends of title character Quasimodo (voice by Tom Hulce). It’s thrilling to behold because the animation, at times, is awesome. While arguably not as good as “Beauty and the Beast,” likely to provoke complaints from fans of Hugo and perhaps a tad intense for the very young (despite the film’s G rating), Disney’s “Hunchback” was one true oasis of 1996’s mostly arid summer of film. Rated G
That Thing You Do ***
It’s an all-too-familiar story: A small-town band records a snappy tune that takes off, earning the players a small share of musical fame; then, just when everything is breaking their way, a clash of egos and conflicting interests brings everyone back to Earth. Given the familiar territory, here, it’s not surprising that “That Thing You Do” fails to break any new cinematic ground. But as written and directed by Tom Hanks, who has a substantial-if-co-starring role as the band’s studio representative, the film is a sweet exploration of youthful exuberance, 1960s-style. For one thing, the band’s music, which hits its stride when a new drummer provides a more upbeat tempo, could actually have been a hit in 1964. Added to the film’s charms are the appearances of several new faces, including Tom Everett Scott as the drummer, Jonathan Schaech as the group’s composer and lead singer, Steve Zahn as the clown and Liv Tyler as the - well, even though she IS the love interest, she ends up being more than just a token female presence. This isn’t “American Grafitti” by a long shot, but it is a pleasant fantasy about coming of age in a past era. Rated PG
After two women (Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly) discover a mutual lust, they decide to eliminate the only obstacle to their future, the mob money-launderer (Joe Pantoliano) with whom Tilly lives. Their plan involves stealing $2 million, but things go wrong, as they always will, and the quickly paced film scrambles toward a climax that, while not completely unexpected, manages to be appropriately suspenseful. The women leads are fine, with Gershon doing penance for her wretched turn in “Showgirls,” and Pantoliano is superb. Co-directors and co-writers Larry and Andy Wachowski have a fine visual sense that helps make the film, all in all, much better than you might expect. Rated R
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