Ride With The Devil (1999)

ride with the devil poster

Director Ang Lee chose to follow up the excellent drama, The Ice Storm (1997), with an epic Civil War film. The filmmakers put in much work to ensure that it was as historically accurate as possible. And on this end, they did a wonderful job. Yet as a viewer of the film, with limited knowledge of Civil War history, many of the details seem false. Yes, there were black men who fought on the side of the South. It is true that there were many, intelligent, courageous, and even good men who fought for the South as well. However, true as these things may be, my 21st-century mind had difficulties believing them.

It goes against the grain of traditional Hollywood war, or even action, pictures. Our main characters are fighting on the losing, and wrong side. (Yes, there were many other factors contributing to the Civil War besides slavery, but this film does not get into them, and so neither shall my review.) We watch these characters commit many atrocities, including the murder of innocent people. Yet it also shows soldiers from the North committing similar atrocities. It seems more like a film depicting the horrendous actions of coming-of-age men than any real declaration on the themes of the war itself.

There have been great movies made from the perspective of the wrong. These films show how even soldiers fighting on the wrong side of war are still human. They have families, loved ones, hopes and dreams. If done well this type of film can show us the humanity in each person, and the atrocities of war. Yet in Ride with the Devil, I never learned to care about any character. With few exceptions, the men we watch in this movie, are not sympathetic. Even the few with redeemable qualities are not given the space for us to care about their lives.

The story centers on a small community within the grand scale of the war. It takes place in Missouri, where literally brother fought against brother on both sides of the battle. Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire) and Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich) play friends who run off to join a gang of outlaws fighting on the side of the South. Here they meet George Clyde (Simon Baker) and a black man named Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright). Holt’s reasons for fighting for the slave minded are only slightly revealed toward the end. Yet it is his relationship with the other three men that make up the central theme of the film. As each of these characters learns to trust and care for Holt, they must question the sense of fighting a war bent on keeping his fellow brothers enslaved. It is to Ang Lee’s credit that he uses subtle hints to follow this theme rather than pounding it in with a sledgehammer. The characters change and evolve, but in slow, slight movements that resembles real life rather than movie life. Even at the end of the pictures no one has made new resolutions with life or changed their beliefs drastically.

The action sequences, though well directed, still fall flat. Lee is unable to stir any real emotion out of the war’s central motives or the intensity of its loss. It is when Lee focuses his attention on the relationships between his characters that this film succeeds. This is not surpassing when considering Lee’s earlier films were small films focused on familial relationships. The bonds that grow between Roedel and Holt are moving. The love story between Sue Lee Shelley (a surprisingly good Jewel) and her suitors (to give names would be to give too much plot away) is also a treat. In Lee’s next picture, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), he found a way to entwine both beautiful action sequences and smaller, meaningful exchanges of love. Here, he seems to be still growing into this ability.

For Civil War buffs this film offers a reliable package of history. For the rest of us, it is a well-made film that ultimately doesn’t generate enough interest to really care.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

crouching tiger hidden dragon poster

Now that wire work is pretty standard in American film, it is hard to remember how impressive the effects were in The Matrix. Though The Matrix was hardly the first to use that type of effect, Asian cinema had been doing it for a while, it was the first time I had seen anything like it. I remember being completely awed by the look and movement of the film. Though much of the style and effects quickly became vamped by many films, shows, and commercials, it remained perfect in its visual effects. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came out a few months later and pushed the Matrix visual envelope even farther. For my dollar, Ang Lee created a smarter, more beautiful use for the effects than the Wachowskis ever dreamed of creating.

The story is a bit tricky. A master martial artist, Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat), decides to give up his heroism and settle down. Proving his seriousness in this new direction he gives up his famed sword, the Green Destiny, to a friend. The sword is quickly stolen throwing Li Mu Bai and another friend, Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) into detective work to reclaim it. Added to the plot is a noblewoman, Jen Yu (Ziyi Zhang), about to be married against her wishes, and Li’s old nemesis Jade Fox (Pei-Pei Chang). To add a little more to the plot (I told you it was tricky) Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien are lovers destined to never have their loved fulfilled.

Ang Lee manages to sort out this complicated plot rather smoothly. The film is sumptuously shot on location in China. The renowned action sequences are poetic and beautiful. It feels more like watching ballet than a sword-fighting action movie. The more skilled fighters can climb up walls, jump great heights, and seemingly fly through the sky. Though the film never explains how they are able to manage such incredible feats, they do it with such agility and grace, that you never think to question it. There is a scene fought out amongst tall whisp trees that is pure poetry. Yet the action sequences never stand in the way of the story. This is not a film designed to wow the audience with nothing but visual tricks, the action serves the story alone and is not there to give cheap thrills.

As the film unfolds a theme develops. Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lin never express their love for each other out of honor and loyalty. They hold to strict codes that must be obeyed over all of their own desires. Jen Yu is also bound by codes of conduct, but she chooses to disobey them and strives to live her own life. This serves as the central conflict between the characters. I will not give too much more of the plot away but will say that film concludes this conflict in a manner not seen often in cinema.

It is difficult for me to judge the acting of a foreign film. I choose only to watch the original language, with subtitles. This allows me to hear the nuances of the actor’s voices, but since I must rely on the subtitles to tell me what they are saying it is difficult to really judge a performance. That being said all of the actors do a fine job. Chow Yun Fat does a remarkable job as a master fighter. In each action scene he is in he fills the screen with a knowing presence. He fights with great poise as if he knows he will be the victor, but does not want to show his true ability. Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang are also standouts.

My only complaint has to do with one of the subplots. In the middle of the picture, we get a long back story on part of Jen Yu’s life. After watching the film again I can see that the back story is essential to the overall theme of the film, but it is still too long in the telling. It also serves to slow the film down just as the plot was finally moving along. I believe the essentials of the back story could have been told at a quicker pace allowing us to understand what is needed without slowing the pace of the film down or lengthening it too much.

This is a small complaint with a truly wonderful film. I have been a fan of Ang Lee for many years, and this film stands as his finest achievement. He is known for his smaller, character-driven family films. Here he manages to achieve something on a grander scale, yet maintains a beautifully portrayed character drama.