Long-in-gestation “Peaceful Warrior” is so under the spell of the be-here-now philosophy of Dan Millman’s New Age-y memoir from which it was drawn that it loses sight of the need to credibly dramatize the ideas. Mere recitation of homilies for better living — which is what Nick Nolte’s gas station guru imparts to a struggling young gymnast — and a half-baked account of the athlete’s comeback are no substitutes for a complete movie. B.O. bliss is less likely in the June theatrical window than in living rooms, where vid-watching New Agers can zone in.
Horror specialist Victor Salva (just off the “Jeepers Creepers” franchise) brings an edge to the pic that New Age-inspired films like “What the Bleep Do We Know?” and “Mindwalk” lacked. One of the shock devices is the opener, where the young Dan Millman (Scott Mechlowicz) has a nightmare about shattering one of his legs in a gymnastics competition.
Salva and ace d.p. Sharone Meir drench the first encounter between Dan and service station operator Socrates (Nolte) in nighttime gloom, capped by Socrates suddenly appearing atop the station roof. The impression –and Socrates’ subsequent spiel (“wisdom is in doing,” “let go of attachments,” “you think more than you know” — makes him Yoda’s working-class cousin from Berkeley.
Through a string of nightly encounters with Socrates, the young stud, one of the cockier and more talented members of the UC Berkeley gymnastic team, begins to grasp the old guy’s notion that every moment counts. Still, what makes this seemingly smart guy put up with such crushing cliches as Socrates pointing at his forehead and opining, “The trash is up here.”
Since Dan’s tolerance of Socrates goes so much against his character — he barely listens to his acid-tongued coach (Tim Dekay), or his jealous teammates — Nolte’s figure can be seen as Dan’s intuition come to life, despite author Millman’s insistence that much of this actually happened. This makes Dan’s character seems like little more than a reactive puppet on a string.
By the time Joy (Amy Smart) enters the picture, delivering Socrates’ nightly meal, “Peaceful Warrior” has become artificial, sabotaging its best attempts at emotional contact: Dan’s subsequent leg-shattering motorcycle accident and seemingly miraculous recovery never feels like an extraordinary surmounting of impossible odds.
Salva finds some cinematic relief in extreme slo-mo coverage of gym routines (coupled with a soundtrack heightening the sport’s natural sounds) and such horror-tinged scenes as Dan facing off with his ego-driven doppelganger on top of the university clock tower. But these — distinguished as they are by Meir’s magnificently textured widescreen lensing — play more as jarring inserts to a film in desperate need of a dramatic core than as part of a grander design.
Mechlowicz has the kind of moody, haunted look of questing youth that a richer movie could make something of, but, Nolte can do little to turn Socrates into more than what he is — a mystic who’s good with a wrench and much too in love with the sound of his own voice.