(2006)4Craig ButlerIn his documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Werner Herzog accompanied Dieter Dengler as he retraced his escape from a POW camp in Vietnam. The story has obviously struck a strong chord with the German director. Several years later, he shot a fictionalized version of the story starring Christian Bale as Dengler and Steve Zahn as his buddy Duane. It is still a low-budget endeavor, built around Herzog's shaky-cam guerilla aesthetic. No matter how much good will you allow, the opening and closing scenes set on a battleship and the depiction of Dengler's plane crash on the North Vietnam/Laos border don't benefit from this approach. But the most cringe-inducing aspects of these book-ending scenes are the broad flyboy characters and their stilted dialogue cobbled together from every clichéd idea about the Vietnam War.
After Dengler crashes, the film settles into a comfortable rhythm as the downed pilot first travels through the jungle and is captured, turning into a fairly engaging prison escape movie. Here, Herzog uses improvised acting with a tightly conceived plot to establish the characters' relationships, particularly with Dengler and Duane. It is really only in these scenes that Bale is able to flex his acting muscles to portray Dengler's reclusive, cunning, and heroic character. Jeremy Davies, as the mentally unstable prisoner Gene, is a little too fond of exaggerated tics but gradually reveals the desperation and crumbling sanity beneath his character's manic facade.
After they escape from the camp, the film once again turns into a mess as Dengler and Duane run through the jungle. It seems that wide swaths of footage are missing in this portion -- their progress is totally obscured, the arc of their desperation is unclear, and it feels rushed. This is especially strange since Herzog specializes in themes of man vs. nature (and unfortunate since both Bale and Zahn lost dangerous amounts of weight for these scenes). The director teases some nice moments from the recurring images of flight -- Dengler's boyhood in World War II Germany, his crash, and various rescue attempts -- but they may go unnoticed by those who haven't seen the documentary. At its lowest -- with cheap effects, bad dialogue, and anonymous Vietnamese villains -- Rescue Dawn looks like an '80s Chuck Norris movie. The ending is over-the-top, wallowing in undeserved heroic grandeur, yet is somehow fitting for this extremely uneven film.