The Men Who Stare at Goats (US - BD RA)
A.J. Hakari is pretty sure this Billy Goat Gruff is giving him the stink-eye...
You know those movies that sent Hitler chasing down the occult? Consider The Men Who Stare at Goats Hollywood's way of restoring balance to the cosmos. Though the picture playfully purports to be drawn from true events (or at least more so than we would think), it wouldn't surprise me at all if the armed forces sampled the silliness running amok here. But viewers needn't worry about a work of political condescension teaching them about their own moral barometers. The Men Who Stare at Goats is in it for goofs, and while a proverb does sneak in through the back, you're still left scratching your head just as the film's creators intended.
Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) is a true cinematic journalist, possessing both improbably good looks and a dodgy American accent. But what's a man in early 2003 to do when his spouse dumps him and strands him in an existential funk? Why, head to the Middle East, of course, where Bob hopes the impending war hooks him up with the story of a lifetime. After crossing paths with former military man Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), Bob finds just that, for Lyn has quite the tale to tell about his old unit. He claims to have served in the New Earth Army, a branch trained to fight with latent psychic abilities. Even for a guy as idealistic as Bob, it's a tall order, though his ensuing desert adventures with Lyn come to supply him with a new way of looking at life.
Much has been made recently of politically-charged flicks taking dives at the box office. These come with the best of intentions, but that's just it. Viewers are skittish of agendas, and as earnest as they may be, civics lessons aren't usually big financial draws. But The Men Who Stare at Goats has a good shot at finding an audience, if only because it cuts down on the sermonizing. Grant Heslov, a long-time Clooney cohort, makes his feature debut here and brings with him a steady command of the story's more farcical elements. Straight-faced irreverence is employed to take us through New Earth's history, including the transformation of its leader (Jeff Bridges) from Vietnam vet to the king of the hippies. Heslov questions Lyn's sanity without copping a mocking tone, keeping the mood light and interest in the characters well-earned.
As far as cast is concerned, with Clooney involved, chances are there's bound to be a party. The Men Who Stare at Goats is no exception, with many a lapse in storytelling eased by the fruitful camaraderie. Clooney serves as our tour guide into madness, and without Oscars on the mind, he really lets loose and owns up to making his character's work seem at least a little plausible. Bridges also does deft work with a tricky part, one requiring much sympathy in the face of much eye-rolling philosophy. Kevin Spacey is hilarious as a petulant New Earth recruit, as is a Stephen Lang cameo more memorable than all of the man's Avatar screen time. McGregor's character, though, is something of a drip. He's not bad, but we never really buy into his journey of self-discovery, which ends up wheeling the story to a more conventional climax than it deserves.
Again, the cinema gods have seen fit to ensure a film with the sweatiest men on the planet find its way to my player. A great deal of the flick consists of Clooney and McGregor pulling a Hope & Crosby in the desert, their every perspiration enhanced in full HD glory. Aside from that, it's an overall very sharp-looking picture. The dunes of New Mexico and California that double for Iraq's look crystal clear, as do the more sunny scenes of Bridges culling New Earth's inaugural crop. Even as Lyn and Bob are held captive, their dingy quarters still convey a crisp image. Your set-up won't exactly be given a workout, but you'll be surprised how often HD works in the film's favor.
Goats comes with a serviceable Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track (English only, though both Spanish and English are offered). Being a war comedy that emphasizes the latter, there's little blown to smithereens, save for a humorous firefight about midway through. You do, however, feel every grunt and groan that stems from some New Earth disciple gunning for a wall. The score comes through nice and clear, although it's a bit on the generic side, doing its job and fleeing your subconscious without leaving the slightest impression.
Extras begin with two commentary tracks: one from Heslov and one from Jon Ronson, whose book served as the film's foundation. I only had enough time to check out Heslov's track, though it was so jittery and absent of scintillating details, it didn't take long to make me wish I went with the other. Viewers still glean some nice information from 'Goats Declassified' (12:29, HD), a minidoc that features some of the participants from the actual First Earth Battalion. For a program based on so unorthodox of origins, it's an insightful piece that explores the concepts practiced by the soldiers involved. It's far more riveting a watch than 'Project 'Hollywood'' (7:34, HD), which is little more than the standard celebrity back-patting. I suppose it's cool seeing the cast and crew talk about the awesome time they had, but in this case, the movie does a better job of selling itself. The 'Character Bios' (4:46, HD) are actually just a handful of trailers that montage their way through explaining the principal characters. A little over four minutes of deleted scenes expand on Bridges' ascent into hippiedom and Spacey's jackassery, none of which are missed from the final cut. Rounding the disc out are the theatrical trailer, ads for other Blu-Ray attractions, and another digital copy best served as skeet shooting ammo at Castle Hakari.
Purchasing The Men Who Stare at Goats boils down to your feelings on the flick itself, which I wholeheartedly recommend. It has its uneven moments, but it's a fun, cheeky film that does well by treating the armed forces with respect and never rubbing your face in its quirkiness. Goats is one solid ditty, and if you have a player, a whirl is definitely called for.
*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by A.J. Hakari
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 23rd March 2010
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 English
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish
Extras: Director commentary, author commentary, mini-documentaries, character bios, trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Grant Heslov
Cast: George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Ewan McGregor, Kevin Spacey
Length: 94 minutes