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
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