A reporter, trying to lose himself in the romance of war after his marriage fails, gets more than he bargains for when he meets a special forces agent who reveals the existence of a secret, psychic military unit whose goal is to end war as we know it. The founder of the unit has gone missing and the trail leads to another psychic soldier who has distorted the mission to serve his own ends.

A wacky but weak-willed take on psychological combat.

At the beginning of this oddball satire-lite there are two titles that pop up on screen that go a long way to explain the twisted, sometimes amusing, more often frustrating confusions to follow.

One says, "inspired by the book by Jon Ronson." The key word here is''inspired.' Published in 2005, The Men Who Stare at Goats is a non-fiction book about men and war. Dry and funny, its intent was deadly serious. It might have been sub-titled 'The Road to Abu Ghraib.' The war Ronson writes of was psychological and the men were US military lifers like Vietnam veteran Lt Col. Jim Channon who, in 1977, produced a 125-page tome called the First Earth Battalion Operations Manual. Influenced by the New Age movement, one of the key underlining values of Channon’s proposal was the suggestion that the US should subordinate lethal force in favour of psychic strategies. Channon drew on a great big daisy-chain of disciplines, therapies, mysticism and paranormal practices for his thesis. In short he wanted to take the stuff hippies took real serious – meditation or telekinesis or the practice of walking through walls ('phasing') – and use it on the battle field. There was a story, Ronson relates, where soldiers would stare at a goat, sending out 'mind signals' in an effort to stop the poor four-legged creature's heart. Of course, Star Wars was the pop cultural phenomenon of the time so acolytes of Channon were dubbed Jedi Warriors. The US military is not known for its wry sense of humour and irony.

In his book Ronson balances his native Brit-Lad humour with a journalist’s sober reflections. Channon's basic philosophy, Ronson says, "could be used to shatter people rather than heal them." Ronson's tone had just the right edge of outrage in the face of all the hallucinatory excess, no matter how laughable it all seems.

The other on-screen title here that sends a shiver of worry up the spine and straight into the brain appears before any action: "More of this is true than you would believe."

It's the kind of audience-poke that belies a certain lack of confidence in the material. It's like telling us, "Get out your laughing gear!"

In adapting Ronson's book, director Grant Heslov and screenwriter Peter Straughan (How to Lose Friends & Alienate People) offer up a fictional parallel universe that reinvents Ronson's factual findings and turns them into cute skit-com sketches. Shot by the brilliant cinematographer Robert Elswit, Men Who Stare has a grimy, under-cooked look even if the action is all over the top. Heslov, who co-wrote the excellent Goodnight and Good Luck knows something about smart dialogue, but the gags here seem freighted in from, amongst others, Catch 22, Three Kings and M*A*S*H. It's movie in-joke humour is OK but sort of beside the point; isn't the absurdity of what Ronson uncovered enough, without smothering it with a sort of 60s 'war is craaazzzeeey, maaaann' vibe? Or to put it another way, Heslov seems scared to really look hard at these kinds of characters, the way Kubrick did in Dr Strangelove. In that classic the men in charge may have been goofy but the hardware, strategy, and protocols were real and that made it frightening. In Men, everything and everyone is silly and cute. And not at all threatening.

The book didn't have a plot; but the movie does and it's a bromide of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope movies.

In it Ewan McGregor plays a reporter (Bob) and George Clooney is a former US military psychic warrior (Cassidy). It's 2003 and we're in Kuwait. Bob wants his 'big' story and Cassidy is on some sort of secret op. The pair hit the 'road', which in this case is the Iraqi desert. They get lost, shot at, and blown up. Between gun shots and quite a few witless dialogue scenes Cassidy regales Bob with outrageous yarns about Warrior 'monks' and something called the New Earth Army. Heslov introduces via flashback, the Channon character who here is named Bill Django (Jeff Bridges retreading his Dude persona from The Big Lebowski, which is, to some relief still really funny). These scenes are like parodies of every Marine-in-training scene ever made, but, you know, with lots of psychedelic hippy stuff thrown in. Meanwhile back in Iraq, the plot cranks to a showdown between Cassidy and Hopper (Kevin Spacey), another 'Jedi' vet who has set up a secret shop of psychic terrors in the desert. Apparently, Spacey’s supercilious nutcase is using his powers for evil instead of good. Which sort of sums up the glib, neat sensibility of the movie; it's easier to shift the stakes around to good old fashioned Hollywood personality power politics than to do what Ronson did and take a serious aim at the military mind game. It makes one wonder about what, exactly, 'inspired' Heslov and co?

Still, is political courage asking too much? Even in its own silly, weak-willed way, Men seems too innocent a vehicle for even a send-up. Light-hearted humour doesn't have to be toothless; look at Ricky Gervais' TV career!

As a pair of nitwits to build a movie around, Clooney and McGregor don't seem to have much of that bristling energy that makes comedy teams work. Clooney, in other words, dominates with his now trademark dumb-arse persona. McGregor is reduced to a foil, a butt of jokes. At one point Clooney starts talking about Jedi's and McGregor dead-pans: "What's a Jedi?" It's one of the funnier jokes in the movie and it lets you know that everybody’s just kidding here, folks.


1 hour 30 min
In Cinemas 04 March 2010,
Wed, 07/14/2010 - 11