Dir/scr: Werner Herzog. US. 2006. 120mins.
With the escape drama Rescue Dawn, Werner Herzog has finally managed to make a pure commercialHollywood thriller, as if to prove that he always could - if he really wanted. Anopening title informs us that his new feature is "inspired by true events inthe life of Dieter Dengler", a German-born US Navypilot involved in surreptitious bombings of Laos during the 1960s who wascaptured by the Viet Cong yet managed to escape. It all makes for a nearperfect anti-art film from the arthouse film-maker,with its smooth delivery of nail-biting plot and complex psychological characterisation.
Herzog's interestin Dengler's story first took the form of thewell-received documentary Little DieterNeeds To Fly (1997). But while Rescue Dawn similarly embodies that classic Herzogiantheme - man as an obstinate idealist struggling against all odds - it is still avery commercial work that will play to many mainstream audiences who have nevereven heard of the German film-maker.
An exceptionallywell-made example of the venerable prison-camp-escape genre, it should befinancially successful in all venues, including the multiplex, in mostterritories and across all formats. Certainly, if handled correctly, Rescue Dawn should easily become thebiggest grossing film of Herzog's illustrious, often brilliant, and wildlyuneven, 40-year career. MGM took North American rights ahead of the film's Galaworld premiere at Toronto.
As a genre film, Rescue Dawn is riveting from beginningto end. Dieter (Bale) is first introduced as a swaggering Top Gun-type pilot flying secret bombing missions into Laos. Whenhis plane is shot down, he is dragged from place to place by villagers, untilhe ends up in a makeshift prison camp holding Duane and Gene (Zahn and Davies), two Americans.
They're treatedlike animals, tortured and starved, but the indomitable Dieter finallyconvinces his beaten-down compatriots to try to escape. The rest of the moviedetails the heroic efforts of Dieter and Duane to battle their way through theimpenetrable jungle and its many dangers toward freedom.
Herzog assuredly controlsthe narrative tempo of the piece from start to end. Long-time admirers maysuspect that some scenes, such as the flag-waving Rocky-like musical triumphalism at theend, are very much tongue-in-cheek fare from the maker of anti-Americana like Stroszeck (1976).
But they would bewrong, for Herzog, who has a reputation for putting his actors through mentaland physical travails to gain strong performances, has clearly done so again: especiallynoteworthy are the scenes involving a plate of worms, some leeches, and a live snakethat Dieter bites into.
The results showin the performances. Christian Bale is especially good as the half-crazed manwho will do anything to assert his human will over the indifferent forces ofthe universe. Meanwhile Steve Zahn, who normallyseems unable to sound anything but funny, plays his role as a psychologicallydestroyed man to the hilt, and gives a deeply moving performance. And JeremyDavies is so convincingly incoherent that at times audiences might not evenknow what he's mumbling about.
Photography andproduction design are excellent, brilliantly and refreshingly capturing theclaustrophobic lushness of the jungle.
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