This review was updated on June 20,2005.
A political black comedy without the bite of the classic military satires it tries to emulate, “Guy X” reps a disappointing sophomore outing for Scottish helmer Saul Metzstein after his winning feature debut, “Late Night Shopping” (2001). Story of a G.I. Joe stumbling on a U.S. government cover-up in Greenland during the waning years of the Cold War lacks punch, despite a mature lead perf by Jason Biggs and fine location lensing by Francois Dagenais. Despite summer and fall fest exposure and awards at Taormina for Metzstein and Biggs, Stateside distribution looks to be problematic.
Scripters John Paul Chapple and Steve Attridge have updated the post-Korean War setting of John Griesemer’s novel, “No One Thinks of Greenland,” to 1979, when the Soviet Union was still the great enemy.
Cpl. Rudy Spruance (Biggs) is vomited out of a military plane that barely stops on a lonely runway in Greenland. Rudy wakes up in the base infirmary, where he discovers (a) he isn’t in Hawaii, where he was supposed to be transferred, and (b) everyone is calling him Martin Pederson.
Base commander Cpl. Lane Woolwrap (Jeremy Northam), an Army blowhard written with obvious nods to “Catch-22,” refuses to listen to Rudy’s claims of mistaken identity and informs him that he’s a public information officer assigned to start a morale-boosting newspaper. The one reasonable figure is Sgt. Irene Teale (Natascha McElhone), assistant to — but also g.f of — Woolwrap.
Pic is stylistically well-crafted in this first third. But the narrative is rather formless in its depiction of bored soldiers.
When Rudy stumbles on a top-secret building, he discovers an infirmary full of nameless, mutilated men. One patient, “Guy X” (Michael Ironside), his body horribly mangled and his face half melted, explains they’re all casualties of the Vietnam War: A public relations nightmare, they’re kept sealed off from the world until they finally expire.
With extraordinary ease, Rudy breaks into Woolwrap’s confidential files and discovers the men were all part of a troop division Woolwrap commanded in ‘Nam, and were all declared dead in ’73.
From here, the Arctic summer days rapidly turn into autumnal evenings and wintry nights. Undoubtedly the most striking element of pic’s style, the change in exterior conditions parallels the shifting atmosphere indoors, as tension and paranoia accumulate.
Unfortunately, there’s not enough emotional build-up for any sense of moral outrage, and character development is haphazard. Pic only toys with the absurdist comedy elements like those in “MASH” and “Catch-22,” and, in an age when government lies no longer have the same power to shock, “Guy X” comes over as not tough enough by half.
Biggs delivers a solid, nuanced performance: He’s effortlessly inherited a kind of Elliott Gould mantle, and it suits him. However, other roles are underwritten, with McElhone, whose aristocratic beauty and inner firmness often linger in the memory, leaving no emotional residue here.
Northam, almost unrecognizable and sporting an unidentifiable accent, is neither crazy enough nor funny enough, and his relationship with McElhone is pic’s least believable element.
Widescreen lensing on the windswept glacier is pic’s strongest suit, with Metzstein and Dagenais (“A Silent Love”) capturing the shifts in mood as the midnight sun turns to 24-hour darkness. Pic was shot in only 31 days, with a glacier in Iceland doubling for Greenland.