The real-life story of the USS Indianapolis, a warship that sank during World War II in shark-infested waters after a top-secret mission, is a no-brainer for a movie adaptation, particularly in the shadow of WWII movies like Fury and Hacksaw Ridge. It was actually given the telemovie treatment all the way back in 1991 with Mission of the Shark, but 2016's USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage endeavours to tell the story with the aid of contemporary special effects. Alas, in the hands of director Mario Van Peebles, the end result is nothing but a direct-to-video cheapie which looks downright pathetic alongside other recent war movies. Men of Courage wants to be a profound historical document, but Peebles and his team lack the talent to tell this haunting true story with any real weight - instead, it feels closer to another Sharknado sequel.
In 1945, the United States Government hopes to end the ongoing World War II with a powerful statement by creating an atomic bomb to be dropped on Hiroshima. Captain McVay (Nicolas Cage) is tasked with transporting certain classified materials into Japanese territory aboard his ship, the USS Indianapolis. After completing the mission, the Indianapolis is torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and rapidly sinks beneath the waves, stranding the surviving crewmembers in the middle of the ocean. With no rescue on the way on account of the mission's top-secret status, the sailors are left to suffer from exposure, while ferocious sharks also prey on the terrified men.
Written by Richard Rionda Del Castro and Cam Cannon, the screenplay hilariously simplifies history and eschews any sort of narrative sophistication, dutifully following the clichéd WWII playbook. Men of Courage opens with an action sequence intended to establish McVay's competency in battle, before showing the plan for the Indianapolis' mission being hatched in a dark room full of military and political figures. There's also some obvious foreshadowing, with several seamen talking about sharks before the ship sinks. Worse, the flick tries to transcend its genre by introducing a love triangle, as two sailors have feelings for the beautiful Clara (Emily Tennant). It was visibly designed to add some humanity to the movie, but it's difficult to care - the subplot only serves to murder the pacing and make the movie feel more like a meandering, overlong mess. The authority figures, of course, are painted in broad strokes of black and white, contrivedly turned into antagonists which feels truly unnecessary in the grand scheme of things. Most of the narrative tangents are unnecessary, really, only beefing up the runtime to an unreasonable 131 minutes.
To Peebles' credit, the first half of the movie is at least somewhat engaging, as the mission is carried out and there's the looming threat of Japanese submarines. But once the ship inevitably sinks and the seamen are left stranded in the ocean, Men of Courage turns into a survival tale as the men try to survive the elements and the constant threat of sharks. This type of thing requires a deft hand, but Peebles and editor Robert A. Ferretti (Code of Honor, Give 'em Hell Malone) were not the right men for this particular job - the second half is a chore to get through. Even more lacklustre is the courtroom drama that follows the men being rescued, which sees the picture outstay its welcome by a considerable margin. The movie's intentions are honourable, especially with the Japanese perspective being offered, but Men of Courage simply cannot come to life in the hands of these filmmakers, and it's impossible to develop any sort of emotional connection to either the story or the characters.
The reported budget for Men of Courage is $40 million, which must be some kind of exaggeration to trick viewers into thinking the movie might be worth watching. Peebles leans heavily on shonky CGI, most of which honestly wouldn't pass muster in a PlayStation 2 video game cut-scene. Hell, even the cannon muzzle flashes look absurdly fake - amateur YouTube filmmakers are capable of achieving more convincing-looking effects on a zero-dollar budget. It's genuinely difficult to believe that the director or any of the producers viewed the "finished" digital effects shots and actually accepted them, rather than demanding better. The producers did pay for a practical PBY plane, but it sank and fell apart during filming, leaving them to resort back to cheap CGI. To the movie's credit, the photography does look nice for the most part - Men of Courage was shot by cinematographer Andrzej Sekula (Pulp Fiction, American Psycho) - but it's spoiled by the cut-rate, bargain-basement CGI. The sharks alternate between convincing and phoney - the animatronic sharks actually look quite good, but the digital sharks are glimpsed far too often, and they look terrible. Especially considering the budget, the shark attacks should not be this lacklustre or incompetent. The score, too, is incredibly intrusive and kitschy. $40 million is no small sum of money, but this is the best they could come up with?
Acting from top to bottom is hammy at best. Cage is his usual campy self as McVay, ostensibly trolling his way through to another unfulfilling paycheque. It's laughable when the movie tries to make itself appear deep and meaningful by adding voiceover narration, delivered by Cage in a dreary monotone voice. Tom Sizemore (Pearl Harbor) also appears in a supporting role as Petty Officer McWhorter, but he's too overwrought to be taken seriously. And despite prominent billing in an attempt to sell the movie, both Thomas Jane and James Remar show up in glorified cameos, and look utterly disinterested. The sailors, meanwhile, are nondescript, and character names never stick. During scenes of the Indianapolis' sinking, the extras appear to be trying way too hard in the absence of proper special effects. As Quint so eloquently informed us during his standout monologue in Steven Spielberg's Jaws, eleven hundred men went into the water after the Indianapolis went down, but at any given time here, no more than thirty extras are seen in the water, and that's a generous estimate. The running tally of how many hundreds of sailors are still alive each day is comical.
Similar to other true-life dramas, USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage closes with photographs of the real men from the titular ship, and even provides interviews with some of the survivors. It should be a poignant footnote, but it only serves to show how ineffective the movie itself actually is. This should be a respectful, harrowing account of a story that's crying out for the big-budget treatment, but instead it's a ham-fisted attempt at a war epic that's only worth watching as a curiosity. Honestly, though, if anybody is legitimately disappointed in this movie, it's their own fault for expecting anything good in the first place. You're better off just reading a book, or listening to Quint's haunting monologue in Jaws once again. Also, am I the only reviewer who finds it amusing that an actor from the indefensible Jaws: The Revenge was given the directorial reigns for a movie about shark attacks?