University of California-Berkeley gymnast Dan Millman (Scott Mechlowicz) is one of the best at what he does, and he has it all: perfect abs, a big bulge in his crotch (the camera focuses on it early on), beautiful girlfriends and the ability to balance full glasses of beer on his feet. There’s just one small problem … he has bad dreams.
In the one that recurs the most, he’s performing a gymnastic routine that goes wrong, causing his leg to shatter into a million little pieces. If that brings to mind the title of James Frey’s recent controversial, largely fictionalized autobiography, the connection may not be accidental. This movie, Peaceful Warrior, is based on a similar mix of fiction and autobiography from the ’80s titled Way of the Peaceful Warrior: A Book That Changes Lives.
In the book and the movie, Millman takes a night walk to clear his head of the nocturnal visions, and comes upon a grizzled gas station attendant who mysteriously disappears and reappears, offering some new-agey philosophy once he has the kid’s attention. Dan sarcastically dubs the guy “Socrates” and is swiftly hooked and wants to learn more from the mysterious man. In the movie, he’s busy having sex with Agnes Bruckner when a vision of Socrates (Nick Nolte) appears behind her. Seeing Nick Nolte would harsh any guy’s libido, so he goes back to the gas station to figure out what’s going on.
The book was published in 1980, and the alleged experiences it was based on happened in the ’60s, so while we can’t exactly accuse Millman of ripping off The Karate Kid and The Empire Strikes Back with the wise-old-guru/hothead-disciple dynamic.
What most of the “training” boils down to is something taught in every improv acting class: Be in the moment. If you can do that perfectly, you can apparently see stuff in bullet time, jump up on rooftops from the ground, and read people’s minds. (“They’re talking! But their lips aren’t moving!”)
Director Victor Salva has undoubtedly been in need of self-help philosophy during his life; he did a prison stint for sexually exploiting an underage actor in his charge. Thus, it’s easy to see why a movie about disciplining oneself would appeal, especially if it also leads to directing a bunch of young men in tight clothes.
That said, while the movie may not be exactly good, it’s never boring. Yes, Mechlowicz seems to be channeling Paul Walker, and he couldn’t have chosen a worse actor to emulate, but that makes it all the more cheesily hilarious when he has to battle his darker self, Superman III-style.
While initially forbidding alcohol, Socrates later admits that it’s OK to drink as long as you don’t make a habit of it. That’s good to know because, in keeping with the overall philosophy, it may be advisable to seize the moment while watching the movie and use it to seize a good buzz. Then you will laugh your ass off — spontaneously, of course.