Lions for Lambs is all talk and very little action. However articulate and astute it is Matthew Michael Carnahan’s screenplay comes across as little more than a transcript of a political-science class debate held three years ago on the Bush administration’s post-9/11 military successes and failures. Carnahan who also wrote The Kingdom is so intent at getting at the heart of the matter that he ignores the need to contemplate the war on terror within a narrative framework. Instead Lions for Lambs finds four of its six garrulous protagonists seated behind desks tossing verbal grenades at each other. In Washington D.C. young ambitious and silver-tongued Republican Sen. Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) lays out his plan to stay the course to skeptical TV journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep). In California wise old college professor Stephen Malley (Robert Redford) tries to persuade slacker Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield) to apply himself in class by telling him about two former students (Derek Luke and Michael Pena) now in the military. As Malley speaks his students are executing the first mission under Irving’s plan to destroy a revitalized Taliban in Afghanistan. But there’s a snafu—of course—and they find themselves injured and cornered by the Taliban. While the action in Afghanistan show how the war is run by a bunch of suits concerned only with advancing their careers the gunfire thankfully offers a respite from the endless chattering and allows us to step outside of Cruise and Redford’s offices. Otherwise Lions for Lambs would be end up being nothing more than a stage play caught on film for posterity. No matter how electrifying he is as the pro-war politician Cruise brings with him his trademark on-and off-screen cockiness and swagger to a role that would be better suited to an actor whom we would find trustworthy and believable. There’s no conviction to be found in what the ever-smiling Cruise says. He’s just a salesman selling the war on terror and—by extension—himself as the next U.S. president. Granted Cruise is playing a senator so every word out of his mouth must be taken with a pinch of salt. But Cruise’s smug presence makes every one of Irving’s points about the war on terror come across as simply suspect and self serving. Streep doesn’t really put up much of a fight against Cruise. As a representative of a complicit media that’s more concerned with ratings than gathering news Streep looks so school-girlishly enamored of Cruise that she seems more likely to jump him than poke holes in his theories on the war. Redford infuses Malley with the right amount of concern and cynicism though you’re never quite sure what it is that the professor sees in his wayward student. Garfield is combative for the sake of combative as Hayes and never for a moment do you believe that Malley’s words will sink in. As a study in contrasts Luke and Pena—who offered a similar study in the risks and rewards of serving the greater good in last year’s World Trade Center—show much grace under pressure when all hell breaks loose around them. “'Nowhere else have I seen such lions led by such lambs ” a German general wrote during WWI about the British soldiers sent to their slaughter by their battle-untested commanders. With this thought in mind director Robert Redford wastes no time revealing his disdain for the Washington D.C. armchair generals who harbor little regard for the troops on the front line. That point is painfully hammered home by the ill-fated mission undertaken by Luke and Pena. And unlike the hysterical Rendition and the bombastic Kingdom Lions for Lambs distinguishes itself as the most thoughtful inquisitive and provocative of all the recent films to tackle the U.S. military response to 9/11. Redford and Carnahan explore the military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq from various perspectives and they even speculate how the U.S. government would justify an attack on Iran. The goal is to prod audiences to question the decisions made by those in power—especially the Commander in Chief—and to loudly protest when they make mistakes that result in many unnecessary deaths. But given that things remain the same as they were before the last presidential election Lions for Lambs feels like it’s too little too late. Most of the arguments made against the Bush administration are old even if they are still relevant and were explored with far greater scrutiny in the damning No End in Sight. Ultimately Lions for Lambs suffers from bad timing.
October 12, 2001 8:19am EST
The story takes place in Zhejiang a province ruled by a greedy governor who spends his days guarding his precious jewels and cavorting with his harem. But not even his legion of soldiers and mercenary Shaolin monks can stop the Iron Monkey a masked vigilante who steals from the rich to give to the poor from infiltrating the palace to stealing the governor's booty. Tired of continued defeat at the Iron Monkey's hands the governor orders his chief constable Master Fox to find and unmask the avenger. What no one realizes is that the Iron Monkey is also the benevolent town medic Dr. Yang. Caught up in the melee are Wong Kei-ying a respected physician and martial artist from Guangdong and his 10-year-old son Wong Fei-hong. In the ultimate kung fu showdown the Iron Monkey comes to the aid of those falsely accused of his crimes.
Yu Rong-guang as Dr. Yang a.k.a. Iron Monkey gives a seamless performance transitioning gracefully from the warm and delicate doctor to the deadly martial artist. Donnie Yen as the elder Wong a victim of the government's "monkey sweep " is saddled with the difficult task of portraying a tough militant fighter and a sweet and loving father yet he does so convincingly. The extremely talented young female martial arts champion Tsang Sze-man plays his son Wong Fei-hong the martial artist and patriot character featured in the Once Upon a Time in China movies and Drunken Master. Jean Wang also puts on a great show of skills as Miss Orchid Dr. Yang's assistant. The martial arts skills of the stars combined with their warm and realistic portrayals of their characters add depth to the otherwise comedic and clumsy minions who appear alongside them.
The fact that Iron Monkey was made in 1993 makes this film even more impressive than it already is. Originally released direct-to-video in the U.S. Miramax Films bought the theatrical rights in 2000 and re-released the newly restored subtitled print. While the subtitles help retain the sense of the original dialogue they also highlight its silliness. Characters for example announce their moves before doing them like "Shaolin Golden Palm!" or "Flying Sleeves!" The corny dialogue is at times reminiscent of old B-movies but the mind-blowing action sequences make up for that and the unoriginal story line. Why is the action so much better than the story? The director's skills lend a clue: -you might remember Iron Monkey director Yuen Wo Ping's action choreography from the recent hits Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and The Matrix.