Rating: 2.5 out of 5
How might The Art of War have turned out if its author Sun Tzu was not a military strategist from ancient China, but an American acidhead of the 1970s?
In an entertaining but wholly irrelevant way, The Men Who Stare at Goats offers a glimpse.
The film, which was ‘inspired’ by a non-fiction book of the same title by Brit journalist Jon Ronson, centres on the supposedly real-life efforts of the U.S army to develop a special unit of ‘psychic warriors’ during and after the Vietnam War.
Ewan McGregor plays Bob Wilton, a reporter who goes on a quest of self-discovery after his wife – for reasons unexplained – dumps him for Wilton’s one-armed chief editor.
The jilted lover’s choice of location for this epic journey is Iraq, where he hopes to write a story about... well, he doesn’t really know what.
Enter Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a military operative posing as an entrepreneur, who is on a covert mission to… well, he doesn’t really know what either.
What’s important is that Cassady is an ex-member of the New Earth Army, i.e. the psychic warrior platoon. And he has stories to tell.
The New Earth Army, Cassady tells Wilton, was founded by a ponytailed hippy named Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), who, following an epiphany in ‘Nam, vowed to make his country “the first superpower to develop super powers.”
As seen in flashback, Django recruits a team of potential ‘mind warriors’ – including Cassady and the inevitable bad egg Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey) – and teaches them a variety of skills; skills as diverse as oriental martial arts, sutra meditation, and killing goats with an intense look.
Back in the present, Wilton witnesses the astonishing display of these skills, as Cassady leads them in and out of a random series of kidnappings, gunfights and car explosions. Why these events are occurring is never quite explained.
The pair eventually end up stranded in the desert, parched, exhausted and utterly befuddled. They come to the conclusion that they may not have known where they were headed to the first place.
If all this sounds mystifying in a Beckettian sort of way, it’s not. It’s just mystifying.
The film ends with Wilton and Cassady stumbling upon the post-Desert Storm apotheosis of the New Earth Army, now stationed in Iraq. The unit is now led by Hooper (the nut job played by Spacey) and dimly supervised by a much-enervated Django.
Wilton and Cassady liberate Django from Hooper’s clutches by lacing the camp’s water supply with LSD, and releasing hundreds of goats and Iraqi POWs from the New Earth Army camp.
All this is theoretically meant to add up to something; an existential satire about man’s relationship to war, perhaps.
Director Grant Heslov extracts credible performances from his distinguished cast and frames his scenes cleverly to milk the action’s absurdist humour.
But he deals with material so obscure and inconsequential that the story as a whole seems little more than a meaningless curio.
“More of this is true than you would believe,” an opening title declares. By the end of the film, a reasonable response might be: “So what?”
About Ken Kwek
Ken Kwek is a playwright and screenwriter. His film credits include The Ballad of Vicki and Jake (2005),The Blue Mansion (2009) and Kidnapper (2010). Kidnapper is now showing in Golden Village theatres and will be released in Malaysia on 13 May.