Director: Larry Charles
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Wendi McLendon Covey, Russell Brand and Amer Chadha-Patel
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The hunt for Osama bin Laden has already had more tongue-in-cheek portrayals in cinema than serious ones. Where Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s chronicle of a decade-long CIA mission to find the founder of Al-Qaeda, stands alone as a straight-faced page out of recent history, this year’s Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping had a whole musical number about a girl who is kinkily obsessed with bin Laden’s execution by Seal Team Six.
While Army of One is a comedy, it takes inspiration from the larger-than-life true story of Gary Faulkner, an unemployed handiman who travelled to Pakistan, armed with a samurai sword, with the aim of finding and capturing bin Laden on what he claimed was a mission from God. Director Larry Charles declares his intentions early on here, by casting Nicolas Cage as Gary and Russell Brand as God.
It’s a film with its heart in the right place and for all of its weirdness, it does make the effort to forge an emotional connection. Cage plays it typically big as Gary, a gregarious but big-hearted character and that works best when we see him at home. Granted, our first sight of him is flying on a hang-glider in Pakistan, blasting hard rock from a boombox and shouting to “the Bearded One” that he is coming for him, before we flash back to the more domestic origins.
The loud, nasal voice that Cage plays the role with could easily become jarring if the film weren’t so good at contextualising his antics as harmless. The film also takes great pains to establish that there’s nothing wrong with him mentally, lest this seem a bit exploitative. Early on, he gets into a ridiculous bar argument with a Marine who’s offended by his outspokenness on the subject of finding bin Laden, which serves as a useful, if bizarre, character-building moment.
We get to know him better when he reconnects with Marci Mitchell, (Wendi McLendon-Covey) his high-school sweetheart, who is working three jobs to support her late sister’s daughter, who has cerebral palsy. Cage’s performance is no milder around them, but the script, by Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman, neatly sets up a story in which a man is torn between newfound domestic bliss and what he considers to be his destiny.
Gary also has to go in for dialysis twice a week for his kidney problems and the film playfully suggests that hallucinations arising from his failure to attend could be a big factor in why he really keeps seeing God.
Like Cage, Brand is on better form than he has been on screen since Aldous Snow and many of the best exchanges in the movie come when God brings his sarky ominscience to bear on Gary’s terrified deference.
The film fares less well whenever Gary actually goes abroad. His interactions in Pakistan open his mind and the film doesn’t deal in stereotypes, but the tone recalls the guerilla antics of Charles’ earlier film, Borat, without the authenticity of the real interactions. That’s not to say that unleashing a barmy Nicolas Cage in Pakistan with a samurai sword would have been a more realistic approach either, but neither are the episodic trips abroad as funny as Charles seems to think they are.
Given the prominence of hallucinations, this could have been more Walter Mitty in tone than it actually is, given how the real Gary did make a few trips back and forth to Pakistan, before and after Seal Team Six. The domestic scenes, where Cage surrounded by comedians like Paul Scheer and Will Sasso as his mates, and where he gets all Zero Dark Flirty with McLendon-Covey, are far more interesting than the foreign ones, where a riff-laden cameo by Rainn Wilson sums up the more scattershot approach.
If Army of One feels too good to be true, then that’s a point in its favour, taking a quirky true story and pairing it with a leading man who has cultivated a public image of being just crazy enough to do something like this. It’s the best and most interesting work we’ve seen from Cage in a long time, playing things way over-the-top, but never losing touch with the humanity of the character.
Army of One is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £9.99 Sky Cinema Month Pass subscription – with a 14-day free trial.
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