Army of One, starring Nic Cage in an adaptation of the real-life tale of Gary Brooks Faulkner, a kook who traveled to Pakistan on a self-described mission from God to try to capture Bin Laden, presents Hollywood with an interesting conundrum: How do you heighten a story for dramatic/comedic effect when the truth is already barely believable? You might say, maybe don’t heighten it, but that’s what Hollywood does. It’d be like telling a dung beetle not to push around spheres of feces.
Other works have dealt successfully with this difficulty. In Silicon Valley, the series compensates by underplaying the ridiculousness of the world that inspired them. (I would argue that the real-life antics of tech guys like Shingy and Mark Benioff are crazier than anything the characters in the show do, which keeps it believable.) At the other end of the spectrum, there’s Selma, in which Ava Duvernay dropped footnotes from FBI surveillance of MLK every time something in the movie seemed a little too Hollywood. It was a simple, elegant way to affirm, “No, this really happened.”
In Army of One, director Larry Charles does basically the opposite of that, and with a story twice as outlandish. The result is an over-the-top nothing balloon of disconnected manic episodes. I don’t… really know what this is. And neither did the studio, judging by the fact that Weinstein/Dimension snuck it into a couple theaters with all the fanfare of junkie leaving a party, 11 days before the DVD release. If nothing else, Army of One is a landmark of kooky Nic Cage performances, a reminder of just how Cage Cage can be when no one’s around to tell Cage no.
The film opens with a narrator delivering some background on Cage’s character, Army of One‘s protagonist, Gary Faulkner, aka the Rocky Mountain Rambo, a nonsense-spewing sometime handyman from Greeley Colorado who was found in Pakistan armed with night-vision goggles and a samurai sword he’d bought on the Home Shopping Network as part of mission to kill Osama Bin Laden he said he’d been sent on by God.
I should point out that I’ve already given you more facts about Gary Faulkner than the movie does. As Cage glides over Pakistan in a stars-and-stripes hang glider and matching outfit that would’ve embarrassed Evel Knievel, with boombox blaring Army of One‘s jaunty theme, the narrator intones: “As strange as it is compelling, this is a true story. Or, a story that has truth in it. Or maybe… elements of truth.”
Which always makes me wonder: Why would you option an outlandish true story only to take special pains to make it less true? Truth is the main selling point of an outlandish true story. Without the truth it’s just a coworker describing the pointless dream he had, with no beginning, end, character arcs, foreshadowing, or denouement. “Oh, so then your sister was in the bathtub with the wolfman, huh? And then what happened?”
“Nothing, dude, it just ended.”
“Oh, okay, cool, I’m glad I listened to that.”
Wearing a goofy hippie wig that actually does resemble the real Faulkner, Cage plays him with one of cinema’s all-time silliest voices, a bizarre blend of Dave Chappelle’s white guy voice and the Micro Machines guy, which would’ve had Adam Sandler saying “Gee, Nic, I dunno, maybe dial it down a notch?” A choice made even crazier by the fact that it sounds nothing like the real Faulkner, who shows up later in the movie. Cage just chose this voice, apropos of nothing, and Larry Charles said “perfect, run with that.”
This is a movie ostensibly about Gary Faulkner that seems to take special pains not to understand him. Which is… certainly a choice. It includes many aspects of the Faulkner mythos from news reports — the fact that he had a sword, that he went after Bin Laden over and over, that he was on dialysis, that he claimed to have been sent on this mission by a vengeful God. God is played by Russell Brand (cute), by the way, Faulkner’s two friends by Paul Scheer and Will Sasso, and his ludicrously-too-attractive-to-be-dating-a-quasi-homeless-crazy-person love interest by Wendi McClendon-Covey.
And that’s about where any explanation of Army of One breaks down. The Bin Laden thing was apparently just one of Faulkner’s quirks in real life, whereas in the movie it’s a little confusing as to why anyone would hang out with this guy, Cage playing him as he is as the most obnoxious man in the world. He meets his love interest while walking through Home Depot telling customers not to buy things made in other countries. Does he even work there? Who knows?
One of the elements that makes Army of One such a singular experience is that Cage and Larry Charles both seem to have the same prodigiously short attention span. One of Faulkner’s plans to go after Bin Laden involved sailing to Pakistan. Another was to hang glide there from Israel. How did he get there? Does he have a job? How much did the hang glider cost? For one trip, Army of One shows Faulkner borrowing $1,000 from his kidney doctor, played by Matthew Modine. But the rest of the time (the real Faulkner claims to have made 11 separate attempts to go after Bin Laden, whom he calls “Binny Boy”) we’re left to wonder. Leaving Charles plenty of time to shoot weird imagined scenes of Osama Bin Laden starring in a rap video (Gary Faulkner has no apparent connection with rap or music videos other than this) and apparently-meant-to-be-real-life vignettes where Faulkner helps a Pakistani street food vendor become the hottest goat skewer chef in town. What the f*ck, man.
Between Army of One and The Dictator, which I also watched this week, I get the sense Larry Charles can only think in 90-second chunks of Borcht Belt-y improv. It doesn’t matter what’s happening in the rest of the film or even the previous five minutes of the film, if this particular day of shooting inspired Larry Charles to dream up a goat skewer bit, then a goat skewer bit we shall see. This style makes for a very weird movie, especially when applied to what’s already a very weird story, starring one of Hollywood’s weirdest actors, making some of the weirdest artistic choices of his very weird career.
I can’t give Army of One a positive or negative review, I can only try to convey my utter bemusement at this cinematic Edsel. Isn’t a comedy so much as a spectacle. Less a comedian telling jokes than a guy in a clown costume smearing turds on his face. “My God, why is he doing that?” you wonder. “I have no idea, but I can’t stop watching.”
I’d suggest reading the GQ article first, and then treating Army of One as a tale told by its unreliable protagonist. That may have been Larry Charles’ intention at some point, before he got distracted by Nic Cage’s wig and charred meats.