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Men of Honor

movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Men of Honor

Starring: Cuba Gooding Jr., Robert De Niro
Director: George Tillman
Rated: R
RunTime: 128 Minutes
Release Date: November 2000
Genre: Drama

Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
2 stars out of 4

Once in a while, I refer to a movie as a "chick flick," triggering a handful of angry letters from people who find the term demeaning to women. Hopefully, this review will help even things out. "Men of Honor" is a "dick flick," the kind of movie that male best friends slap in the VCR while drinking a few beers. "Dick flicks" focus on men following their dreams, manly men who never give up because, damn it, they are made of the right stuff! Invariably, the lead character has issues with his father that are either resolved in a cathartic face to face with Dad or through a significant encounter with a father figure. Almost always, dick flicks include a horrific accident or a death, with tears and male bonding galore. These moments come late in the film, giving the best buddy viewers time to down enough beer to comfortably sniffle along with the characters onscreen.

"Men of Honor" is far from being a great movie. The production is generally overwrought, the dialogue is trite, it's about 25 minutes too long and it includes that most dreaded of clichés, the climactic courtroom scene, complete with an emotionally manipulative score. As someone who earns his living reviewing films, it is my duty to point out these things and treat them with disdain.

But I must tell you, in the dick flick genre, overwrought is good and trite dialogue is forgivable (after all, it's easier to quote on repeat viewings). As long as the film packs a macho punch, there is no such thing as too long, and courtroom scenes are welcome because they lead to speechifying, and best friends watching a flick and drinking beer absolutely love speechifying.

This particular overwrought story is "based on the life" of Carl Brashear, which means that his onscreen heroism is probably close to the truth, while all the secondary characters are suspect. Cuba Gooding Jr. handles the inspirational role quite well, which is no big surprise, since the Oscar winning "Jerry Maguire" star is essentially a motivational speech given human form.

We meet Brashear in Sonora, Kentucky in 1943, as his hard-working, extremely poor father implores him to better himself. Years later, the young man joins the Navy, with visions of becoming a diver. Instead, he ends up slicing potatoes in the kitchen, as a coworker explains that there are only three options for a black man in the Navy: be a cook, an officer's valet, or get out of the military.

He doesn't give up, of course, and his speed in the water earns him a spot on the Search and Rescue team. After much work, he becomes the first black accepted in the Naval diving school. But, although desegregation is the rule, discrimination remains the norm. Save for one, all of the other men refuse to bunk with him and, to make matters worse; his instructor is Master Chief Billy Sunday, a world-class bigot.

As Billy Sunday, Robert De Niro gives a terrific performance. Snappy and fast, De Niro creates a completely new man, instead of merely playing a variant of his standard tough guy persona, as has been his wont in recent years. Sunday, who also came from humble beginnings, is an alcoholic cracker with a redwood-sized chip on his shoulder. He also is very good at his job.

Like "Remember the Titans," "Men of Honor" deals with determination in the face of racism, but in a more believable fashion than the Disney film. Certain characters make inroads towards conquering their bigotry, and they manage to do so without breaking into any song and dance numbers, thank God. The film also boasts genuinely tense face-offs, as well as some nicely shot underwater action scenes. Standouts include a submerged test sequence and a gripping bit of nastiness involving a rogue submarine.

While Gooding remains front and center for the entire film and De Niro is given ample opportunity to flesh out Billy Sunday, the supporting characters are given short shrift. Aunjanue Ellis has a few juicy moments as Jo, Brashear's love interest, but is mostly relegated to the background. Charlize Theron breezes in and out as Sunday's wife and Michael Rapaport stutters sympathetically, while David Keith, Hal Holbrook and Powers Boothe barely get their faces onscreen.

As an inspirational drama, "Men of Honor" is generic and poky, redeemed only somewhat by the two leads and the periodic effective segments. The film will not go down in the dick flick hall of fame either, but it gets the job done in that department. My suggestion: Wait until it comes out on video, invite your best pal over, drink a few beers together and be ready to have a fine, uncritical, overwrought evening.

Copyright © 2000 Edward Johnson-Ott

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