UC-Berkeley gymnast Dan Millman (Scott Mechlowicz) is one of the best at what he does, and he has it all: perfect abs, a big bulge in his crotch (the camera focuses on it early on), beautiful girlfriends and the ability to balance full beer glasses on his feet. There's just one small problem: He has bad dreams. In the one that recurs most often, he's performing a gymnastic routine that goes wrong, causing his leg to shatter into a million little pieces. If that brings to mind the title of James Frey's recent controversial, largely fictionalized autobiography, the connection may not be accidental. This movie, Peaceful Warrior, is based on a similar mix of fiction and autobiography from the '80s titled Way of the Peaceful Warrior: A Book That Changes Lives. Considering all the sequels and spinoffs subsequently authored by the real Dan Millman, one imagines that at the very least, he and his wife have had their lives changed by the substantial proceeds, so the title's not entirely hyperbolic.
In the book and the movie, Millman takes a night walk to clear his head of the nocturnal visions and comes upon a grizzled gas station attendant who mysteriously disappears and reappears, offering some new-agey philosophy once he has the kid's attention. Dan sarcastically dubs the guy "Socrates," and since a real name is never offered or revealed, the philosopher moniker sticks. In the book, Dan is swiftly hooked and wants to learn more from the mysterious man; in the movie, he's busy having sex with Agnes Bruckner when a vision of Socrates (Nick Nolte) appears behind her. Seeing Nick Nolte would harsh any guy's libido, so he goes back to the gas station to figure out what's going on.
The book was published in 1980, and the alleged experiences it was based on happened in the '60s, so while we can't exactly accuse Millman of ripping off The Karate Kid and The Empire Strikes Back with the wise-old-guru/hothead-disciple dynamic that ensues, we can say that he -- and the movie -- milk the angle in far less cinematically interesting ways. In fact, the movie most resembles that short-lived Comedy Central reality series I'm With Busey, in which Gary Busey put one of his biggest fans through increasingly weird physical and psychological ordeals. Nick Nolte may not be as crazy as Busey, but he's getting there.
What most of the "training" boils down to is something taught in every improv acting class: Be in the moment. If you can do that perfectly, you can apparently see stuff in bullet time, jump up on rooftops from the ground and read people's minds ("They're talking, but their lips aren't moving!"). The movie, with its emphasis on healing hands and the reactive mind, feels not unlike a Dianetics primer -- top-level "Clear" Scientologists also claim to be psychic. The book put more emphasis on astral projection, Eastern fables and hallucination sequences, but those would have required a bigger budget.
Having done a prison stint for sexually exploiting an underage actor in his charge, director Victor Salva has undoubtedly been in need of self-help philosophy during his life. Thus, it's easy to see why a movie about disciplining oneself would appeal, especially if it also leads to directing a bunch of young men in tight clothes. Salva's past might not be an issue if he were more talented -- just look at Oscar-winner Roman Polanski -- but his excessive fondness for slo-mo and strange, otherworldly beings who operate outside of logic overwhelm any attempt at serious narrative. (Socrates is almost literally the halfway point between Salva's best-known cinematic creations, the angelic title character of Powder and the immortal demon of Jeepers Creepers.) Midway through the story, Dan breaks his leg, which ups the stakes a little, but it isn't entirely clear why, except that sometimes the warrior training distracts him and sometimes it makes him fabulous. If there's a rhyme or reason to why and when, it's likely to be lost on most viewers.
That said, while the movie may not be exactly good, it's never boring. Yes, Mechlowicz seems to be channeling Paul Walker, and he couldn't have chosen a worse actor to emulate, but that makes it all the more cheesily hilarious when he has to battle his darker self, Superman III style.
The movie's "deepest" insight, however, has become the tagline on the poster, which in other instances might be considered a spoiler, but hey, since they gave it up: "There are no ordinary moments." When Dan talks about "one moment in time" during his Olympic tryouts, it's a shame they don't bust out the appropriate Whitney Houston song on the soundtrack. Sure, it would be over-the-top, but things are well on their way there already.
While initially forbidding alcohol, Socrates later admits that it's okay to drink as long as you don't make a habit of it. That's good to know, because, in keeping with the overall philosophy, it may be advisable to seize the moment while watching the movie and use it to seize a good buzz. Then you will laugh your ass off -- spontaneously, of course
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.