Life-enhancing philosophical insights are nearly drowned and fully drowned out in this narcissistic memoir adapting self-help guru Dan Millman's 1980 book Way of the Peaceful Warrior. While Millman says today that his book about his college encounters with a modern-day shaman is a mix of fact and fiction, the movie vaguely claims to be "inspired by true events." What we're supposed to draw from that I'm sure even Socrates-Millman's so-nicknamed mentor-couldn't tell us.
Adding to the confused message is that this lovingly photographed paean to young male college gymnasts in the hairless bloom of youth is directed by convicted pedophile Victor Salva, who confessed in 1988 to molesting a sixth-grade boy with whom he was shooting the movie Clownhouse. Salva served 15 months and was paroled in 1992, but his subsequent films Powder (1995) and now Peaceful Warrior display a fetishism that sends what-were-they-thinking? signals that Millman, at least, hasn't addressed.
Set in an indeterminate time at a California college campus-Millman attended UC Berkeley in the 1960s-the film centers on Dan Millman (Scott Mechlowicz), a gymnast whose specialty is the rings, and, like the heroine of the far better gymnastics film Stick It, has a coach (the very effective Tim Dekay) who keeps cautioning his reckless charge not to try that that impossible triple flip or you'll kill yourself, dammit.
Though Millman has all the outer trappings of an enviable, albeit hedonistic, young life and a bright future, he's vaguely dissatisfied. Could it be...spiritual malaise? A three a.m. jog takes him to all-night gas station-or "service station," as its attendant (Nick Nolte) pointedly tells the young man, informing him there's no higher calling than service to others. As the haughty Millman leaves, something catches his eye; the attendant, sitting on a chair right behind him, is suddenly standing on the roof, as if he were DC Comics' super-speedster The Flash. Telling himself he'd imagined it, he nonetheless returns the following night, demanding to know how the philosophical old man, whom he's sarcastically dubbed Socrates, pulled off that stunt.
Thus begins a journey of discovery familiar to anyone who's read Carlos Castaneda or seen The Mask of Zorro with Anthony Hopkins and Antonio Banderas. The young man and the old mentor go through rocky beginnings until Millman eventually lets go and gains spiritual insight. To his credit, he accomplishes this despite such old-movie clichés as "The doctors told me there's no question: You will never compete again."
Mechlowicz, who like the other team members is doubled by an Olympic gymnast, is smarmily effective, and Nolte, now suddenly Lord of the Rings' Saruman, embodies the phrase "a shock of white hair." It's hard to imagine any actor having the balance of heartfelt belief and self-conscious can-you-believe-this-crap subtext to pull off this non-role, but by Buddha, he does it.
This probably isn't a bad film for high school or college students and young adults. The message is good, even if the delivery is repetitive, ham-handed and, in light of Salva's proclivities, equal parts disturbing and amusing. Millman cameos as a man in a car at the station.