by Sheri Linden
The Hollywood Reporter
The Hollywood Reporter
In Dan Millman’s autobiographical novel “Way of the Peaceful Warrior,” an ultracompetitive gymnast finds the key to enlightenment in an unlikely setting: a Berkeley gas station.
There’s no question that legions of Millman’s fans will embrace this film version of the 25-year-old best-seller. But in adapting the first two-thirds of the book, director Victor Salva and writer Kevin Berhardt clearly aimed to do more than preach to the personal growth/self-realization choir; for the most part they avoid self¬congratulatory New Age philosophizing and focus on character.
Strong performances by Scott Mechlowicz as Millman and Nick Nolte as the mysterious mechanic who changes his life ground the film in effective drama. “Peaceful Warrior” premiered April 28 at the Inspiration Film Festival in Santa Monica, a weekend event devoted to so-called transformational films. The nontraditional philosophy at its core will meet resistance in some markets. But when Lionsgate puts the film in limited release June 2, the combo of coming-of-age story, spiritual teaching and spectacular gymnastics could connect beyond the Esalen crowd.
Mechlowicz (“Mean Creek”) is thoroughly convincing as the hotshot UC Berkeley gymnast who’s close to qualifying for the Olympics. Known for his prowess on the rings, he’s an A student with no money worries and no shortage of pretty girls throwing themselves at him. But nightmares of terrible injury plague him. On one such sleepless occasion, he heads out for a run at 3 a.m. and stumbles upon an old- school, full-service Texaco station where a strange old character (Nolte) jolts him fully awake with a physics-defying move from the ground to the station’s roof, a 12-foot vertical leap beyond the skills of even a top-notch athlete like Dan.
That’s the hook that brings Dan back to the station and the guy, whom he dubs Socrates, to learn a physical trick he can add to his repertoire. But what Socrates has to offer turns out to be about unlearning old ways of thinking, and the lessons don’t come easy — involving everything from scrubbing toilets to giving up alcohol and sex. Mechlowicz conveys the tug Dan feels, gradually opening himself to Socrates’ wisdom but not without frequent retreats to his former, strutting ways — until a devastating event makes him rethink his visions of the gold.
Despite the story’s unconventional content, Salva (“Powder,” “Jeepers Creepers”) and scripter Berhardt have shaped a conventional film, which could help it reach audiences who wouldn’t normally seek aphorism-studded narratives. The somewhat schematic structure also limits the film’s power, with Dan’s back-and-forth threatening to grow tiresome and some of his revelations too heavy- handed.
But undercutting any possible sanctimony or obviousness is Nolte’s terrific portrayal of the gruff, compelling spiritual warrior who isn’t above a night of boozing and who turns an apparent victimization at the hands of muggers into yet another life- affirming lesson — all with understated humor. The quiet authority and grizzled sense of experience that Nolte brings to Socrates create a real chemistry of contrasts with Mechlowicz’s striving Dan. As Joy, another seeker who encourages Dan on his journey, Amy Smart delivers an intriguing portrait in relatively little screen time.
When technology wirelessly tethers more and more people to nonstop multitasking, the film’s central concept — how to be fully in the moment — might be more valuable than ever. Embodying another kind of focus and grace are the good-looking production’s extraordinary gymnastic routines, with Salva, DP Sharone Meir and editor Ed Marx masterfully intercutting the actors with top-notch athletes.