Who knew that behind all the befuddlement Nick Nolte projects, there actually lurked the wisdom, patience and virtue of a Zen master?
“Peaceful Warrior,” the tale of an injured gymnast forging an impossible comeback, might have succumbed to its bumper-sticker philosophizing if not for a potent, even-keeled performance from Nolte as the athlete’s mysterious mentor.
The film is adapted from Dan Millman’s book “Way of the Peaceful Warrior,” his combination of memoir and fiction about a brash young gymnast who learns to let inner serenity guide him rather than external pursuits and dreams of glory.
For director Victor Salva, who scored horror hits with “Jeepers Creepers” and its sequel, “Peaceful Warrior” marks a return to more ethereal ground he mined with 1995’s “Powder,” the story of an albino boy with strange powers.
The story could stand some trimming, yet the sometimes snoozy pace of “Peaceful Warrior” is offset by good rapport among Nolte, co-star Scott Mechlowicz and an engaging ensemble of supporting players.
Mechlowicz (“Eurotrip”) plays a character named Dan Millman, based on the author’s early life as a gymnast who could stand a spiritual tune-up. Mechlowicz’s Dan is a rising star on the rings, aiming for a tryout to make the U.S. Olympic team.
Dan has the stamina, determination and raw talent, along with the brazen ego and party-boy ways that go with athletic stardom. A nocturnal encounter with a service station attendant (Nolte) who quietly spouts insightful self-help aphorisms sets Dan on a road to becoming the “peaceful warrior” he was meant to be.
Jokingly nicknamed Socrates by Dan, Nolte’s blue-collar sage takes the gymnast under his wing, engaging in a series of platonic dialogues about finding fulfillment from the inside out.
Dan halfheartedly embraces his teacher’s wisdom, initially finding it a quick fix that puts him in a good frame of mind to kick his competitors’ butts. It’s only after a devastating injury that Dan discovers the real meaning behind Socrates’ doctrine and begins to shed petty ambition in favor of a richer spiritual life.
The film veers into the mystic, and occasionally into the vapid, as Socrates endlessly spouts pep-rally slogans about warriors finding love in what they do, warriors fighting only in the now, peaceful warriors doing their battles within, not in the outer world.
But the placid conviction Nolte brings to Socrates can give the occasionally cliched catchphrases the weight of proverbs. Nolte may be known for boozy excess in real life, but he conveys a powerful sense of saintly forbearance in “Peaceful Warrior.”
Mechlowicz nicely balances Dan’s early arrogance with his later temperance, creating a credible arc as the character struggles on the brink of despair.
While largely a two-person story, the film features able support from Amy Smart as another seeker in Socrates’ camp, Ashton Holmes and Paul Wesley as gymnastic teammates and Tim DeKay as Dan’s paternal coach.
Though centered on athletics, “Peaceful Warrior” is a tale of soul rather than body, and the film makes for a refreshing break from Hollywood’s parade of predictable underdog sports sagas.