BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
First it was the series of dreamlike fictional films, then a steady stream of surreal documentaries and now, with his first large-budget, English-language film, the force of nature known as Werner Herzog is ready for the third act of his career. With Rescue Dawn, starring Batman himself Christian Bale, Herzog appears to be capitalizing on the fluke success of his documentary Grizzly Man by swinging for the fences for a last shot at a Hollywood homer. A triumphant story of a downed pilot’s survival in the jungles of Laos, Rescue Dawn is efficiently harrowing enough to earn its audience, I just wish that in the process of delivering this crowd-pleaser Herzog hadn’t stripped away so much of his own personality.
Based on the true story of German-American Navy pilot Dieter Dengler, the film follows his months-long ordeal after he is shot down and lost in the jungles of Laos during the secret bombings of 1966. Dengler was captured and imprisoned by the Pathet Lao but escaped by walking barefoot for miles through the unforgiving jungle. The film chronicles enough grueling tests of endurance for a season of “Fear Factor,” yet the film seems undernourished in comparison to Herzog’s own documentary Little Dieter Needs To Fly, made with the real Dieter Dengler a decade ago.
In that film, Herzog took the then middle-aged Dengler back to the jungles of Asia to re-enact the saga, going so far as to hire locals to tie his arms behind his back and run him through forest. If Herzog thought this was going to crack some of the reserved veneer off Dengler he was mistaken; the ex-pilot remains unflappable as he tells of the nearly surreal string of obstacles he faced before he was finally spotted and rescued by an Air Force pilot.
After Klaus Kinski’s death, Herzog seemed at a loss to find the type of actor whose very presence was an emotional spectacle in itself, the way it is with a true madman like Kinski. He has worked with the similarly intense Brad Dourif (best remembered for his Academy Award-nominated performance as the troubled Billy in Forman’s Cuckoo’s Nest) and in 2001’s Invincible he worked the physically spectacular Jouko Ahola (1999’s “World’s Strongest Man”) but in recent years Herzog has come closest to summoning the primal power of his early triumphs in his documentaries, where he continues to tell the stories of some of the most extreme people and places on the earth. Dengler captured Herzog’s imagination because something deep inside the soldier proved unbreakable when he survived the unsurvivable. As the real Dengler calmly recounts one horror after another in Little Dieter, we study his eyes and voice looking for signs of his vulnerability but its absence, or his ability to repress it, is most likely the reason he didn’t perish alone on the jungle floor.
If Herzog had to choose among bankable faces to play Dengler, I suppose Christian Bale was probably the best choice, his sociopathic intensity and the physically vigorous roles he’s taken in the past show a level of commitment that separates him from the Wilson Brothers of the world. Bale has dropped Dengler’s German accent for the film yet he channels a distinctly Germanic sense of control and discipline. He is finally dumped into prison, where he meets a loopy Gene (Jeremy Davies delivering his stock “crazy” performance) and a exhausted Steven Zahn as Duane and in the time it takes to eat a few maggots, Rescue Dawn turns into a fairly conventional prison picture.
It’s not that Herzog doesn’t render this story competently, although Bale’s performance turns Dengler’s contained demeanor into something a little too opaque. The problem is that there is so little Herzog in this film. There’s the jungle, there’s the grueling ordeal and there’s even the same story he’s told before, yet Rescue Dawn looks like it could have been made by anyone. Instead of watching a Herzog film it seems like we’re watching a Hollywood film that is just a bit “Herzog-esque.” For some Rescue Dawn‘s conventional veneer might be an improvement, Herzog has always been a director who has divided audiences. But if you’re a fan of his distinctly phantasmagoric stamp, a little ain’t enough.