What is it with Blu-ray and inspirational underdog pics? Whether it is working-class everymen overcoming incredible odds to realize their dream ('Invincible,' 'Glory Road,' 'Gridiron Gang') or military grunts kicking ass and winning the love of a beautiful woman ('Pearl Harbor,' 'Flyboys,' 'Annapolis'), it's as if the studios figure that the only movies early adopters care about involve football or machine guns. By the time 'Men of Honor' arrived on my doorstep for review, I wasn't sure if I would be able to stand another one. Happily, my fears proved unfounded, because as melodramatic and heavily fictionalized as this movie is, it's actually one of the better of these types of epics that I've seen on the format recently, and it certainly doesn't deserve to be overlooked amid the glut.
Inspired by real events, 'Men of Honor' tells the tale of Carl Brashear (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), who would become the first African-American accepted in the Navy Master Diver program. A natural born swimmer, Carl will surmount seemingly impossible odds to realize his dream. The son of a poor sharecropper (Carl Lumbly), he leaves home after the seventh grade to enlist in the military. But this is the 1940s, and the intense racism of the time seems to preclude any possibility for Carl to gain in rank. That is until he falls under the tutelage of Chief Billy Sunday (Robert De Niro), a former Master Diver stuck in an instructing position after a rescue attempts gone bad. The two form an unlikely, and at times tumultuous, student-mentor relationship: Sunday helps Brashear's standing in the military, while Carl helps Billy overcome his own internal prejudices. Only a disastrous diving accident will threaten Carl's future, but even then he prevails in the face of adversity. I guess when you're a Man of Honor, there's nohing you can't do.
Perhaps the biggest problem with 'Men of Honor'is that it completely Hollywood-izes Carl Brashear's true story. From one perspective, that makes the movie an insult -- this man's story is fascinating enough that it doesn't need all the melodramatic bells and whistles. By refashioning Brashear's fight against the entire military system into a series of one-on-one battles between Carl and a series of fellow racist cadets, the story feels too pat, and seems to diminish Brashear's accomplishments in challenging military policy. I also could have done without Captain Pappy (Hal Holbrook), the almost tyrannical senior officer who oversees Sunday's training camp. As played by Holbrook, Pappy is such an over-the-top caricature of the redneck good ol' boy that it plays like just another standard-issue villain scenario, instead of realistically representing an elder military establishment resentful of the black man's intrusion into their rigid hierarchy. But most detrimental is the elevation of the Sunday character into a co-lead, which feels like a token gesture to the white audience. Though De Niro delivers a strong performance, this is hardly his story, and all the side business about his personal life and an affair with a younger ingenue (Charlize Theron) is nothing but a needless distraction.
Still, 'Men of Honor' delivers as feel-good, inspirational entertainment. I enjoyed the film's period detail, the fine production design and the seeming earnestness of the filmmakers. De Niro and (especially) Gooding also turn in very fine performances. I was never a big fan of Gooding's over-the-top, "Show me the money!" persona, but in 'Honor' he admirably tones down the theatrics in favor of subtlety and restraint. 'Men of Honor' should have offered a career change in the right direction for the actor, if only the movie rest of the movie had been up to the level of his performance. Still, Brashear's story is one that deserves to be told, making even the somewhat flawed 'Men of Honor' a worthy watch.
'Men of Honor' surprised me. I wasn't expecting the natural, vibrant picture this 2.35:1 widescreen 1080p/MPEG-2 transfer delivered. The source is excellent, with deep blacks and rich contrast that is eye-popping but not tweaked to high heaven. Film grain is apparent, but smooth and consistent throughout. Colors are deep and pure, from the pretty blues of the underwater scenes to intense red accents in the interiors of the submarine. Fleshtones are also perfectly rendered, and detail excels as well. Except for the odd soft shot here and there, this transfer is almost always sharp and three-dimensional, from long shots flush with detail, to the cringe-worthy, incredibly real-looking gash on the nose of Robert De Niro in the very first scene. Close-ups in particular can be phenomenal -- you can turn counting the pores on the actor's skin into a drinking game.
Nitpicks include some slight noise in lighter backgrounds, such as the sky blue panoramic shots. There is also some slight print wavering, but it's very minor. Also, I counted about three white speckles on the print. (Like I said, these are nitpicks.) But no matter -- picture quality=wise 'Men of Honor' is one of Fox's finest Blu-ray efforts yet.
Fox continues to support the DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio format with 'Men of Honor,' and it is another very fine 5.1 surround mix.
Though the 129-minute film is largely dialogue-driven, it does enjoy a few bursts of surround activity. There are a couple of action-orirnted sequences (namely a helicopter crash and an altercation with a Russian sub) that deliver an immersive soundfield. Atmosphere is pretty solid during the rest of the film, with minor ambience noticeable in the rears. Dynamic range is healthy, with some some surprisingly powerful low bass in the aforementioned action scenes. Dialogue is also always distinct and front-and-center in the mix. 'Men of Honor' gets high marks.
'Men of Honor' hits Blu-ray on a BD-25 single-layer disc, which apparently doesn't leave much room for extras.
The primary supplement is a screen-specific audio commentary with director George Tillman, Jr., actor Cuba Gooding, Jr., producer Robert Teitel and writer Scott Marshall Smith. This is the same track that appeared on the previous standard-def DVD release, and Tillman and Gooding are the stars of the show, bantering back and forth like old college buddies, ultimately delivering quite an informative and lively discussion. Whether describing the changes that needed to be made to the real-life story of Carl Brashear or various on-set adventures and mishaps, this track is smart and informative enough that it makes you wonder why the movie itself wasn't better.
Also included is the film's Theatrical Trailer in full 1080p HD, plus spots for a few other Fox Blu-ray releases.
'Men of Honor' is your standard-issue Hollywood inspirational tale of an ordinary man who must overcome extraordinary circumstances to emerge a hero. And while this flick does little to differentiate itself from the cliches, some good performances and a deserving enough true-life story bring it up a notch compared to other similar fare. As a Blu-ray release, a good transfer and soundtrack, plus a solid commentary make this an easy recommend for fans of the film.