Four Vietnam vets reunite for a mission, one that will lean on their wartime exploits but also expose more than a few old tensions. No, this is not a revisit of “Da 5 Bloods” but a brief description of the genial, cliché-encumbered, Aussie comedy “Never Too Late.” Directed by Mark Lamprell, it opens in virtual — and a few actual — cinemas nationwide on July 10.
Wily and determined, former special forces soldier Jack Bronson (James Cromwell) arrives at the Hogan Hills Retirement Home for Returned Servicemen and Women looking the worse for wear. He’s in a wheelchair and appears to have had a stroke. The facility’s ramrod director Lin (Renee Lim) admits him. After he’s taken to his new abode, we learn that decrepit act was subterfuge. He’s there to reconnect with the love of his long life, Norma (Jacki Weaver).
It’s Norma’s voiceover that starts the movie off, recounting the war, the fall of Saigon, Jack’s role as the leader of the Chain Breakers, the quartet of POWs who’d escaped their captor. She was a combat nurse. “Sometimes it takes a lifetime to find a happy ending,” she says. Leaping 50 years forward, the story underscores that sentiment.
Almost as soon as Bronson finds Norma, she’s whisked off to a much swankier facility for a three-month drug trial for Alzheimer’s. Bronson snuck in skillfully enough. Getting out — breaking out — will be harder. When he learns his old Chain Breakers mates are in the same retirement home, he enlists them in his plan to get to Norma yet again. Only he doesn’t quite come clean about the facts of the mission. The idea that Bronson arrives at the facility unaware his three mates reside there seems to imply (rather lazily, given the character’s special ops training) that there’s been, if not outright estrangement, at least a slow parting of the ways.
Still, Bronson rallies them. Yes, his old friends have lost some giddy-up. Well, Caine (Dennis Waterman) still has a measure of prowess. But Angus (Jack Thompson) is experiencing memory loss, and Wendell (Roy Billing) has alienated his grown son Bruce (Australian star Shane Robertson) so much that the letters he sends boomerang unopened.
Bronson’s reminding them of their old motto — “No excuses, no regrets” — doesn’t get the guys going, but his ruse about the war’s unfinished business does. For laughs, an even crabbier, crustier escape-artist named Hank interrupts a few of the Chain Breakers’ planning sessions with tactics of his own and some noticeable middle-finger stiffness. Also on board for the break-out is teen Elliot (Zachry Wan), something of a superfan of these Hogan’s Home heroes.
While “Never Too Late” goes for a few too many old-folk chuckles, it also aims to probe the serious. You don’t put POWs front and center and not tempt darkness. The services of hardboiled fiction writer Luke Preston, who wrote the screenplay, held promise; he may even be responsible for the movie’s edgier moments concerning the brutality — and legacy — of a North Vietnamese POW camp commander, only that storyline feels oddly grafted onto director Mark Lamprell’s more familiar old-dudes-make-a-break-for-it rhythms. Lin’s performance as the woman with a history and possibly an agenda also poses a question or two about how Asians are depicted onscreen in Australia. (In the briefest appearance, Wendy Ticao makes a nicely nuanced impression as Elliot’s mom, a nurse.)
Hogan Hills’ institutional ambiance makes it easy to think of the residents as detainees. Room doors have glass slots, assuring little privacy. Attendants look — and behave — like bouncers. There’s even a barbed-wire courtyard. This is a locked unit. Before director Lin (Renee Lim) ever picks up a syringe, you worry for Bronson’s renegade spirit. Although Lin is the boss, she behaves like she attended the Nurse Ratched school of caregiving, and the movie evokes “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” as much as it does “Grumpy Old Men.”
While the ensemble of well-regarded actors proves game enough for codger hijinks, the film’s grounded moments come from Cromwell and Weaver, portraying the couple who almost made the leap to betrothed 50 years earlier. Cromwell gives Bronson a wince and a smirk that suggest a wry cageyness. It’s taken the guy decades to clear the hurdles in order to propose to Norma, so what’s a few more obstacles?
Weaver deftly teases our fears of “will she/won’t she?” — remember him, their past, anything. While Angus’s memory lapses are played for humor — he doesn’t recall a door code, he’s forgotten his pants — Norma’s confusion has poignance. She cranes her neck to meet his gaze with a kind of bright energy that is either sweet recognition or merely the life-long habit of courtesy.
Compliments to cinematographer Peter Falk for giving a palpable sense of the star-crossed pair together and apart, shooting them in ways that accentuate their physical intimacy but also their vast difference in height. As it heads toward its presumptive and long-overdue happy ending, “Never Too Late” sends its fellas on a romp that proposes a sentimental — and dang it, well-earned — end for each vet. “No excuses, no regrets,” indeed.