'Map of the Human Heart' explores a path too often traveled

May 14, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Map of the Human Heart" is certainly one of a kind: it's a coming-of-age story about an Eskimo bombardier.

This is not a small movie. I was astounded at the scale and detail, the energy that director Vincent Ward lavishes on the tale and how close he comes to bringing it off. But in the end what destroys, or at least diminishes "Map of the Human Heart" isn't its audacious originality, which turns out to be but a patina, but its utter familiarity -- the way in which it defaults to formula and is unable to discover fresh emotions while indulging in dreary stereotypes.

You have seen it all before, if not quite in these clothes: the sense of "fate" that star-crosses lovers so they penetrate each other's lives at tumultuous times. It embraces that old familiar melody, the love triangle between callow youngster, epicene aristocrat and the beautiful young woman who stands between them.

The film stars Hawaiian actor Jason Scott Lee who only last week became a world sensation in "Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story." Here, Lee plays Avik, of the North Pole, one of those youths fated for a strange life journey between cultures.

One day in 1931, a big silver bird -- yes, they actually say "big silver bird" -- materializes out of the bright sky next to an igloo village and a tall, regal explorer steps out. This is Patrick Bergin, still playing Sir Richard Burton from "Mountains of the Moon," though the character's name is Walter Russell. He's a Canadian cartographer, there for a month's mapping.

A resolute, cheerful man, he soon takes a liking to one of the village youths, the friendly and precocious Avik. When Avik develops tuberculosis and is fated to die if he remains, the explorer decrees that in the "higher good" he will take the boy to civilization -- as represented by a sanitarium where Jeanne Moreau plays head nun! Thus it is that Avik is introduced to white culture, which he masters quickly enough, and a mixed-race young woman named Albertine whom he never masters. The two flirt and form an intense friendship, but soon he's well and returns to his village, where the years pass and he does not prosper because he's now viewed as an outcast. The explorer returns -- another big silver bird! -- and hires him as a guide, in search of a lost German U-boat. Thus does Avik learn there's a war on, and he decides to go fight it.

In the flash of a movie eye, we rediscover Avik, now grown into Lee, as a sergeant-bombardier in Britain's Bomber Command in 1944. Ward is clearly fascinated with World War II and on what can't have been a huge budget, he manages to re-create those days with a stunning vividness, even following the big, lumbering bombers on a few flak-infested, terror-filled night raids. These birds aren't silver, they're black and deadly.

It helps, I suppose, that the technical details are so convincing; one therefore doesn't notice how phony are the emotional ones. Here's that desperate screenwriter's best buddy, Fate, at highest pitch: not only does Avik rediscover his lost love from the sanitarium, who has grown into Anne Parillaud, the beautiful French actress from "La Femme Nikita." But then he discovers she's already got a lover -- Patrick Bergin!

Once the love triangle is discovered, the movie takes on a peculiar hue. Its World War II London has a surrealistic, absurdist feel. Odd imagery dominates: somehow Avik and Albertine end up making love on the cantilevered Victorian roof of Albert Hall while buzz bombs doodle down, or in the huge and enveloping mattress of a barrage balloon. Meanwhile, Bergin's office, in which he plots revenge, is some kind of weird puppet master's lair.

The revenge, of course, is to get Avik back in the air for the infamous Dresden raid -- and, even, to have him bail out and float down to earth in the middle of it.

Still, in its dizzy desire to tell a gigantic if slightly harebrained story and in its sheer audacity, "Map of the Human Heart" at least attains the rank of honorable failure. You'll never see another one like it!

"Map of the Human Heart"

Starring Jason Scott Lee, Patrick Bergin and Anne Parillaud

Directed by Vincent Ward

Released by Miramax

Rated R

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