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As its title suggests, "Men of Honor" resembles a political speech delivered by a candidate who's determined to win.
It salutes the underdog and appeals to our basic good instincts. It doesn't flinch from harsh realities but refrains from viewing wrongdoers with unfocused wrath.
Obviously, director George Tillman Jr. sought to make a good, old-fashioned movie. And "Men of Hon-
or" is both good and old-fashioned.
In this based-on-fact story, Cuba Gooding Jr. plays gritty Carl Brashear, bound for glory as the first black Navy diver.
Robert De Niro plays training officer Billy Sunday, a composite of several tough guys who initially stood in his way. Sunday, who has his own demons to exorcise, places painful hurdles in Brashear's path, but we know that before the movie is over, his jeers will turn to cheers.
Both stars give conventionally strong performances. Gooding's quietly effective performance is the antithesis of his Oscar-winning abrasive-but-appealing Rod Tidwell in "Jerry Maguire."
Carl Brashear's fires smolder inside his psyche. Conditioned by the prejudiced environment, he conceals much of his anger, letting it show only in his eyes.
De Niro's performances always bring complex and often contradictory responses, and Billy Sunday is no exception. But he's a foolproof character, one of the few that the actor has portrayed. Even his comic turn in "Meet the Parents" involved more risk. If Carl Brashear adheres to his can-do mantra step-by-step, Billy Sunday's journey from resistance to respect is equally predictable.
Much like compadre Al Pacino, De Niro has started wooing the audience feverishly, as if making up for lost time. Still, the role calls for growls, grimaces and grumblings in an assortment of shapes and tones. And no one can growl, grimace and grumble with more variety than De Niro.
The movie devotedly follows Brashear's progress from pariah to patriarch. The son of a sharecropper, he never forgot his pledge to his father to always do his best. But the screenplay treats De Niro's character in a fuzzy fashion.
He's enduring a troubled marriage to a much younger and very restless woman, played by the ubiquitous Charlize Theron. We want to know more about this mismatched couple's background but never do. Following "The Legend of Bagger Vance," "Men of Honor" is the second film in as many weeks with Theron playing a character who's provocatively introduced but virtually ignored in the movie's later scenes.
Aunjanue Ellis brings a strong presence to the relatively one-note role of Brashear's dedicated wife. Ellis makes us aware that she's willing to suffer for her man, without always suffering silently.
David Keith, who donned uniform 18 years ago in "An Officer and a Gentleman," and Powers Boothe appear briefly as sympathetic captains, while David Conrad is all ice as a prissy lieutenant.
Following his success with "Soul Food," director Tillman handles the story in a reverential manner, appropriate for the film's tone.
The scenes of De Niro barking and hissing are all lively, as are the rigorous and often dangerous training scenes in which the hero must endure more torment than any of his white colleagues.
"Men of Honor" has been made by savvy cinema politicians, who follow through on most of their campaign promises.