The Men Who Stare at Goats review (Blu-ray)

If you’re going to make a comedy about the Iraq war you’d better be pretty sure it’s hilarious. This raised a grand total of four laughs and a couple of smiles, which is a pretty poor return over 89 slow minutes. The problem is the idea is much, much funnier than the execution, for which the blame should be taken by the writer and director, not Jon Ronson’s revelatory book, apparently based on real characters.

Ronson’s tome revealed the amazing, often bizarre world of the US military’s experiments with mind games, to “keep up with the Russians”. McGregor plays journalist Bob Wilton who, dumped by his wife and seeking adventure, travels to Kuwait to report on the Iraq war. There he meets Lyn Cassady (Clooney), who reveals he is on a mission as one of the “super soldiers”, who use the mind’s power to overcome their enemy. Fascinated with the concept, Bob tags along and Cassady slowly reveals the story of how his secret unit was formed.

We discover the legion of “warrior monks” was the idea of Vietnam vet Bill Django, played by the incomparable Bridges, who seems to be a reincarnation of his Dude from The Big Lebowski. He basically turns out hippie soldiers, calling them the New Earth Army, making them do yoga, worship the sun, listen to rock music and take drugs. He faces his nemesis though in the form of a cynical Larry Hooper (Spacey), more psychotic than psychic. Cassady reveals himself to be brilliant at reading minds, but struggles with the walking through walls part of the training. Cassady’s mission is to find the now missing Django, which takes him and Bob through the Iraqi desert.

So we get soldiers trying to lift weights with their genitalia, disarm enemies with the power of suggestion, become invisible and, yes, kill goats by staring at them. How can this not be funny – yet, somehow, through leaden direction and a lack of pacing, it is. There’s a particularly painful running gag with Clooney constantly claiming to be a Jedi, while McGregor looks at him blankly. It’s mildly amusing the first time, by the end of the movie it merely reveals the screenplay’s lack of real wit. It’s not all bad, however. Bridges reminds us that he is one of the true greats, his hippie soldier Django constantly waving his arms around, hair plaited, handing out flowers to bewildered officers. Spacey as his opposite is just as good, a hardline, cynical warrior who provides one of the film’s few shocking moments when he puts a gun in his mouth. When he throws a pencil at a private he still manages to be threatening despite his comedy moustache the cast seemed to insist on.

Compared to these two screen greats, McGregor seems lightweight – was he only cast for that feeble Jedi joke? Clooney is armed with a great voice and natural screen presence, but his constant mugging here borders on the irritating. It’s the second collaboration between him and director Heslov after they made the equally slow Good Night And Good Luck together, with Clooney directing Heslov’s script. Perhaps it’s time for a break. The goat was good, though.

EXTRAS ★★★ An audio commentary with director Heslov; another audio commentary with author Jon Ronson; the 12-minute featurette Goats Declassified: The Real men of The First Earth Battalion; a 7-minute making of called Project Hollywood: A Classified Report; four deleted scenes; character profiles; the theatrical trailer.

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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