Picks and Pans Main: Screen

updated 03/11/2002 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/11/2002 01:00AM

We Were Soldiers

Mel Gibson, Madeleine Stowe, Greg Kinnear, Sam Elliott, Chris Klein, Keri Russell, Barry Pepper, Don Duong

More than it should, We Were Soldiers plays like 1995's Braveheart in fatigues. Front and center, there's jut-jawed Gibson, again starring as a noble warrior and savvy military strategist who leads loyal troops into battle. This fight takes place in Vietnam's central highlands rather than the highlands of Scotland. But like Braveheart's William Wallace, Gibson's character in Soldiers, Lt. Col. Harold Moore, personifies courage under fire.

Both movies were scripted by Randall Wallace, who also directed Soldiers. But while he hits many of the same notes, the impact is muted here. The new film is based on We Were Soldiers Once...and Young, a 1992 memoir by Moore (who retired from the Army in 1977 as a lieutenant general) and journalist Joseph L. Galloway. Both the book and film chronicle the four-day Battle of la Drang, the first major foray by U.S. troops into combat in Vietnam in 1965, during which Moore and 400 of his men were surrounded by 2,000 North Vietnamese soldiers.

Only Moore seems to count. The other soldiers come across as stereotypes (Klein plays a sensitive young officer, Kinnear a wacky, gung-ho pilot) or mere afterthoughts. The many battle scenes, as grisly as those in Black Hawk Down, are repetitive and confusing. One never gets a sense of scale: how far one group of men is from another or the size of the battlefield. The film is most effective in its early home-front scenes, when Moore is teasing his spouse (Stowe, who mostly looks tearful) and, later, when an Army wife (Simbi Kali Williams) refuses to accept a telegram bearing bad news.

Soldiers isn't out to debate U.S. participation in the Vietnam War. Rather, its intent is to salute the courage and gumption of American soldiers who went over to do a job—an attitude it extends to their North Vietnamese foes, who are depicted as worthy, honorable opponents. Consider it the I'm okay, you're okay approach to combat films. (R)

Bottom Line: Battle-fatigued

40 Days and 40 Nights

Josh Hartnett, Shannyn Sossamon

Reeling from a disastrous breakup that has left him prone to panic attacks when he sleeps with subsequent dates, a San Francisco Web programmer named Matt Sullivan (Hartnett) vows to give up sex altogether for Lent. He seems to think all those celibate nights will heal his broken heart. In other words, an exalted religious ideal—spiritual renunciation as food for the soul—is the springboard for a comedy about a guy determined to keep his pants zipped. It's the sacred and the inane. Matt, quickly growing desperate, tries to distract and dull himself by spending evenings at the Laundromat. That's where he meets Erica (Sossamon), another online worker. They fall in love, but Matt puzzles and exasperates her by refusing to consummate the relationship. They do have a love scene, of sorts, in which Matt strokes Erica's naked body with an orchid. It's meant to be delicately erotic but comes across more like the boudoir exercise of a perverse young florist.

Hartnett, saying his lines as if he were choking back penitent sobs, adds a few centimeters of depth to a part that has "Freddie Prinze Jr." written all over it. (R)

Bottom Line: Resist the temptation to see it

Queen of the Damned

Stuart Townsend, Aaliyah

As Queen Akasha, the world's first vampire and onetime ruler of ancient Egypt, the late R & B singer Aaliyah displays a languid grace, much skin and a sharp set of fangs. None of it is enough to breathe life into Queen of the Damned, a torpid sequel to Interview with the Vampire and based on novelist Anne Rice's The Vampire Chronicles.

The horror film begins with Le-stat, an attention-seeking 18th-century vampire (Townsend, assuming Tom Cruise's Interview role), becoming a 21st-century rock star after grooving to contemporary music he hears through his coffin walls. His success on the pop charts awakens Akasha from her centuries-long beauty sleep. Deciding it's time to rule the world again, she impresses her potential subjects with such gruesome stunts as tearing a pulsating heart from a man's chest and feasting on it. (Want ketchup on that?)

Townsend is the only one who's fun here, slithering about in leather pants as if trying to be Jim Morrison. (R)

Bottom Line: Big teeth, no bite

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