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“The Way of War”, starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and JK Simmons (Spider Man, Juno), seems, at first blush, to be another action movie about a rogue covert operative trying to stay alive while uncovering a government conspiracy at the highest levels. Unfortunately, if you examine closely, you’ll find that it doesn’t get any more original.
“The Way of War” probably looked really, really good on paper, because the potential is everywhere. Many of the characters have a hidden, but sadly untapped, depth. In trying to be original some things are explained in odd ways, like a cassette tape with the main character speaking to what seems to be his father, but end up just being distracting and confusing. A few subplots only deepen the confusion and make the main character more muddy and indefinable.
The opening credits run over quick cut scenes from the entire movie, beginning to end, with moody drum beats and electronic orchestral music that sounds, vaguely, Middle Eastern. The actual story begins with a press conference announcing the death of a terrorist called the Ace of Spades. The operation was carried out by three soldiers who all lost their lives in the process. Quickly, of course, you discover that one of the soldiers, David Wolfe (Gooding), has survived and returned to the states.
It’s so difficult to figure out who the characters are. Some of the main characters never even reveal their true names or roles. Within the first few minutes people are spouting quotes from The Art of War by Sun Tzu and giving impassioned, almost laughable speeches. Every scene is so overly dramatic and contrived that it all plays out methodically predictably.
The director attempted to make the movie more original by combining several ingredients. Instead of a pleasing blend, however, it turns muddy and frustratingly confusing.
First, there is almost no soundtrack. If the music isn’t actually integral to the story, like when a musician or jukebox is playing in the background, then it’s notably absent. During the most intense scenes the muted electronica from the opening plays while, like a silent movie, the action unfolds only visually. It doesn’t add to the drama, it makes the viewer wonder if he’s gone deaf and missed something important.
Second, the entire movie sporadically jumps through time. It’s not just flashbacks but a confusing blend of the near present and present that become very difficult to follow. Without the ability to stop the DVD and rewind certain scenes the average viewer may get completely lost during the first thirty minutes and never be able to find their way back.
Third, and most obvious flaw of all, is the casting. Right people, wrong roles, and for all of the most important characters. Cuba Gooding Jr. is never believable as the highly trained, soulless killer. The man wrinkles his brow, flashes that brilliant, and slightly awkward, smile and you don’t fear him. You just want to give him a hug. JK Simmons as Sergeant Mitchell is also way off target. Simmons is such an incredible actor and he has the right deadpan acceptance of his fate as a soldier but throws in cartoonish dramatic delivery mixed with speeches that sound like they were written by the Coen brothers. Simmons, like Gooding, still looks more like an irreverent father or goofy editor than a seasoned soldier on a suicide mission. Clarence Williams III (The Mod Squad, Twin Peaks) does the best job of all trying to overcome the stilted dialogue he’s given. However, even his role seems better suited for someone else, most of the time.
“The Way of War” DVD, itself, is devoid of any special features. So, if you like this movie, and there will be a few people who enjoy the visuals and speeches minus any relevant dialogue or plot, that’s all you get. No commentary, no featurettes, no bloopers. Hell, even a few alternate or deleted scenes might have filled in the major gaps. Maybe they should have listened to Sun Tzu a little more. “It is only one who is thoroughly acquainted with the evils of war that can thoroughly understand the profitable way of carrying it on.”’
John Carter (director) / John Carter, Scott Schafer (screenplay)
CAST: Cuba Gooding Jr. … David Wolfe
J.K. Simmons … Sergeant Mitchell
Vernel Bagneris … Samir / Ace of Spades
Edrick Browne … Snow
Mark Joy … The President