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Go Between: Tobey Maguire defuses a brawl in 'Ride With the Devil.'


Ang Lee's 'Ride With the Devil' misses the meaning of the Civil War

By Richard von Busack

SINCE ONE meaning of the verb "to bushwhack" is to ambush someone in the woods who is unwary and harm them, I wonder why someone would make a heroic epic about the original bushwhackers. The shapeless new Civil War picture by Ang Lee, Ride With the Devil, has a racy title. Yet it's a slow, meandering tale missing the real craziness of that particular moment and area of history: the days of John Brown and William Quantrill (the latter, a figure of almost horror-story malignity, is seen only in glimpses, without any stories of his war crimes).

The heroes in this film, young bushwhackers "fighting for our land," get stuck in a dugout seemingly for years as history rolls over them. Lee captures the sense of time passing heavily in the woods, without conveying the sense of outside events. To ensure sympathy with the pro-slavery force, we also have Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright), a slave who fights on the side of the South but who understands the evil of slavery by the end of the film.

Lee wants to remind us of the youthfulness of the soldiers--Quantrill himself was dead by 29--but co-stars Skeet Ulrich and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers are solidly 20th-century men, and Tobey Maguire, the lead, is another decidedly 20th-century young 'un. Maguire plays Jake Roedel, a German farmer's son who turns guerrilla. This is the third movie I've seen Maguire in, after Pleasantville (his best) and The Cider House Rules (his worst, but it's John Irving's fault). Maguire never gives the impression of having an inner spring to him, something ready to leap out and take over a movie. In all three performances, he's been the same, a shy, decent and perhaps slightly odd kid with somewhat protuberant eyes and a tiny scar on his cheek. Sometimes I've been distracted from one of his featherweight performances for minutes, trying to figure out if the scar was a letter "u" or a letter "s." Whatever the letter, Maguire doesn't look like he's been through the war at the end of Ride With the Devil; he changes so little that the sprawling tale seems to have taken place in another theater.

At the film's big action moment--the massacre at the abolitionist city of Lawrence, Kan.--the slaughter is simply staged as background while, inanely, Roedel and his buddies tune it out and go get some breakfast. There's enough missing from Ride With the Devil that there's no need to stress Jewel's own limitations as an actress in her debut role as a young widow. The character--shaped to the persona of America's bestselling poet--is that of an all-wise Earth mother, in harmony with nature. (She's done a song for the film titled "What's Simple Is True," which should be useful for a frozen orange juice commercial someday.) Between Maguire's callowness and Jewel's synthetic perfection, you wonder how America made it to the 20th century. Must be God's providence.

Ride With the Devil (R; 138 min.), directed by Ang Lee, written by Daniel Woodrell and James Schamus, photographed by Frederick Elmes and starring Skeet Ulrich, Tobey Maguire, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Jewel, opens Friday at the Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the December 16-22, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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