Good intentions can't overcome the weaknesses of 'Cadence'

February 15, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic


Starring Charlie Sheen and Martin Sheen.

Directed by Martin Sheen.

Released by Republic Pictures.

Rated PG-13.

... ** If "Cadence" weren't so entertaining, it would be a lot easier dismiss.

Fundamentally, it's the kind of naive-liberal pipe dream of the '50s, a sort of politically correct combination of "Billy Budd" and "The Defiant Ones" that, however well-intentioned, ends up telling us that the point of unjustly imprisoned black people is to improve young white people. Charlie Sheen plays a young soldier stationed in West Germany in 1965. Depressed over the death of his father and the directionless course of his life, he has eight-balls tattooed on his fists, then, drunk, busts up a nightclub. He's sentenced to 90 days in the stockade.

Immediately, two problems develop. The first is that the officer in charge of the jail, played by Sheen's father, Martin (who also directed), takes an immediate interest in him as a substitute son, and wants the kind of emotional cooperation that the young man is incapable of giving. The second is that the other five prisoners are all black.

Let's concede without comment the film's main proposition: that in an unsupervised military prison five very tough black soldiers will instantly take a liking to, and more or less "adopt," this white kid, initiating him to the ways of their culture without a real crackle of hostility.

Let's not object to the clumsy stereotyping: There's an athlete, a singer, a Muslim, and a sassy yas-man who liaisons with the hated authorities. Let's not object to the clumsy initiation rites: Young Sheen has to prove himself playing basketball before his acceptance changes from the conditional to the enthusiastic. And let's not make a big deal over the fact that the movie believes that black Americans are naturally more rhythmic, which it expresses by having them march in a "soul cadence" that is conceived to demonstrate their ethnic cohesiveness. And finally let's try not to notice that it's returned black people to the thankless roles of martyrs and saints, a Hollywood staple during the '50s.

Let's instead concentrate on the movie's best aspect, which is the vivid performance by Larry Fishburne, a great actor, as the prisoner in charge. Fishburne, who is never less than electric, is particularly showy here, and his Stokes comes to immediate life, giving the movie a dignity it otherwise lacks. In fact, the whole theme of "black culture," as represented in the symbolic imprisonment of these five in an otherwise all white world, is the movie's most morphic resonance.

The other intersecting story is less convincing. Father Sheen's Sergeant McKinney is far too avuncular to represent much menace (especially as he's porked up, perhaps to disguise the strong resemblance between himself and his son).

In truth, Sheen took the part on an emergency basis, after the actor he was directing in the role didn't work out a week into the shooting. Still, he seems to have sentimentalized himself and his own role, and when his anger at Charlie Sheen's embrace of black culture goads him into an act of violence, it seems completely arbitrary and wholly out of character.

In the end, however, the arc of the drama is somewhat dispiriting. Meant to honor black Americans, it somehow trivializes them, being less interested in them as human beings in their own rights than as facilitators of Charlie Sheen's psychic wholeness. It's about him getting a life; it doesn't let them have any at all.

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