The long shadows of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah loom over “One Man’s Hero,” an unabashedly partisan Mexican War tale that suffers greatly from both a visibly constrained budget and an extraordinarily dated feeling. In its telling of Irish-Americans pulling a collective Benedict Arnold and fighting for the Mexican army during the Mexican-U.S. war of the 1840s, pic is laden not only with a heavy pro-Irish sentiment but carries a strong whiff of post-Vietnam, anti-American politics — recalling how that national nightmare influenced a wide swath of pics during the late ’60s and ’70s. Few of today’s younger viewers, with zero memory of that contentious period or awareness of colorful Mexican War will give this any attention, and those who do will stare at it with blinking puzzlement. Outside obvious key markets of Ireland, Mexico and Spain, pic will go down in flames like its doomed heroes.
Helmer and Mexican film industry vet Lance Hool has had the late scribe Milton S. Gelman’s script, inspired by actual events, ready for filming for 20 years, and has waited too long to make it. Still, saga indicates early promise during strong credit sequence, as period illustrations and political cartoons portray the desperate plight of Irish suffering the catastrophic Potato Famine, which sent millions fleeing to the States — where the immigrants endured a fresh round of indignities from the Protestant-dominant republic.
While excising any background on U.S. motives for grabbing Mexican territory (which stretched north into what are now parts of Texas), pic’s focus hardly veers from Sgt. John Riley (Tom Berenger), a lifer in U.S. Army but torn by Irish loyalties. Irish and German army recruits being punished for worshipping in a Catholic church appeal to Riley for relief, but he ignores them, just as his south-of-border visit to a Mass attended by other Irish recruits led by Cpl. Kenneally (Stuart Graham) appears to put him at loggerheads with fellow Irish.
But cartoonishly nasty, anti-Catholic Capt. Gaine (Stephen Tobolowsky) is about to torture supposedly disloyal regulars when Riley intervenes, leading to their escape into Mexico and the hands of Mexican bandit-cum-rebel Cortina (Joaquim De Almeida). Riley is saved from Cortina’s ruthless partner, Dominguez (Carlos Carrasco), by the top bandit’s lover, Marta (Daniela Romo), who spots Riley wearing a crucifix.
Script is endlessly burdened with such badly judged, on-the-nose dialogue as Marta informing Riley, “I fight for a cause,” and Gaine, learning from upstanding Col. Lacey (Mark Moses) that Congress has declared war on Mexico, saying, “It’s time to give those chili-gobblers what for.” Pic’s language and generally broad or tired performances damage drama just as story aims to increase the stakes, with troops facing off and Cortina having to decide what to do with the crew of Irishmen without a country.
Forcibly signed on to the Mexican army, with a carrot of promised land, Riley’s Irish form St. Patrick’s Battalion as the troops of Gen. Zachary Taylor (the charismatic James Gammon, who threatens to steal the film from Berenger) advance from the north. Battle of Monterrey is only moderately effective, marred by inept stuntwork and Hool’s weak widescreen framing, with a follow-up nighttime fight only confusing matters. Narrative sprawl consumes pic as Riley abruptly leaves troops to search for Marta, leading to an unintentionally comic confrontation with Cortina and a corny face-off with a rampaging Dominguez. By this point, there’s an overwhelming yearning for the graceful force of a Peckinpah or the historical irony of a Leone — who brilliantly depicted the Irish-Mexican alliance during the Mexican Revolution in “Duck You Sucker.” With the Riley-Marta romance lacking believable sizzle, the Irish doomed, and a silly, tight-jawed turn by Patrick Bergin as bloodthirsty Gen. Winfield Scott, it’s clock-watching time on the old frontier.
Though script observes some nice dramatic unity and Hool leaves the most visually gut-wrenching moment for late in the last reel as Riley is literally branded a traitor, pic has none of the cathartic hero-as-freedom-fighter emotions of a “Braveheart.” Storytelling needs greater power than this, and certainly a more vigorous lead performance than is provided by Berenger, a proven ensemble player but a non-star.
Bad guy specialist De Almeida tries to make something of a complex role meant to mirror the conflicted Berenger character, but he’s undone by flat dialogue, as is Romo, a leading Latin American multimedia celeb whose first stab here at English-lingo market is a major flop. Among Yanks, Gammon rules the roost, and Moses conveys period propriety.
Irish ensemble is treated as a mass, without individuated portraits that would have given pic greater dramatic heft. Mexican locales offer authentic atmosphere, but production credits by international crew are merely competent.