starring Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies, Marshall Bell
written and directed by Werner Herzog
by Walter Chaw Though a perfectly serviceable actioner, one that avoids almost every pitfall and cliché of the POW genre while supporting a singularly eccentric performance, Werner Herzog's Rescue Dawn, sadly, could have been directed by any one of a dozen directors. Gripping but not especially memorable, it lacks the mad Bavarian's insanity: his belief that nature is obscene, as well as his ability to make a trance from the mendacity of routine. (Because Herzog is a rare talent, his films butt up against greater expectations.) The irony of this being Herzog's most accessible film is that it's still probably best appreciated by Herzog fans, who will note--besides the obvious link to Herzog's Little Dieter Needs to Fly--an early moment where a sadistic Laotian guerrilla regards a giant butterfly on his arm like Kinski in B-roll for Fitzcarraldo. German-born Dieter Dengler is brought to life in Rescue Dawn as a bizarre pastiche of nervous tics and unrestrained energy by Christian Bale (the most impressive Method actor in Hollywood who still manages to leave no lasting impression whatsoever). Here Dieter, after getting shot down over Laos on a covert bombing run early in the Vietnam War, serves as leader to--and inspiration for--a group of prisoners-of-war closed off somewhere in the lush South Asian jungle. If it's meant as a continuation of Herzog's interest in blurring the lines between fiction and documentary, consider that Little Dieter Needs to Fly is already a near-perfect example of that particular auteurist concern, with even recent Herzogs like Grizzly Man addressing the same issues (and others, such as the horror of the Natural and the futility of man's struggle to transcend) with more subtlety, tragedy, and wit. Exactly no more and no less than what it is, Rescue Dawn is a Vietnam flick without a discernible political agenda; another opportunity for Jeremy Davies to act like a paranoid, emaciated junkie; and another chance for Steve Zahn to cement his second-banana status. There is one moment, however, that sings with poetry, as Dengler hallucinates a lost buddy and offers him the tattered sole of a shoe they'd been sharing through the wilderness. It's Herzog peeking through a canopy of expert nullity. Originally published: November 22, 2006.