A film review by Craig J. Koban
2005, PG, 90 mins.
Shane Wolfe: Vin Diesel / Zoe Plummer: Brittany Snow / Seth Plummer: Max Thieriot / LuLu Plummer: Morgan York / Helga: Carol Kane / Kurt: Jordan Allison / Liesel: Anne Fletcher
Directed by Adam Shankman / Written by Thomas Lennon and Ben Garant
Frank hyperbole aside, I thought that Vin Diesel’s newest comedy – THE PACIFIER – would be the mother of all cinematic, poop-filled diapers. After all, the film’s basic premise is nothing altogether new and fresh.
Much like last year’s 13 GOING ON 30, which starred Jennifer Garner in an obvious, gender reversed knock-off of BIG, THE PACIFIER has no false pretensions about being indicative of another famous screen comedy. You may remember KINDERGARTEN COP with Arnold Schwarzenegger playing a tough-as-nails and hard-boiled cop, oozing of male bravado, who has to take an undercover assignment as a kindergarten teacher. The one-joke premise with that film was, of course, it’s Arnold Schwarzenegger as a kindergarten teacher. THE PACIFIER is very similar in the sense that this time it’s about a Navy Seal who has to put in a tour of duty as a babysitter.
Yet, despite its obvious formula and predictable routines, THE PACIFIER works as a comedy much in the way KINDERGARTEN COP did, as it sort of survives past its sparse premise and instead becomes a fairly warm, tender, and funny comedy with a bit of a heart to it. Yes, Vin Diesel is definitely following in the footsteps of the current Governor of Kah-i-fornia with this new family film, but in an effort at humanizing his oftentimes tough-guy screen persona, THE PACIFIER generally works, and throughout the film Diesel shows off what a good sport he is through all of the proceedings.
Of course, this gravel-voiced physical specimen can be an engaging action hero that is hard-hitting and sturdy, but here he also demonstrates what a good eye he has for both light and broad physical comedy. In essence, Diesel is sort of chipper, clever, tender, not to mention very funny, and his willingness to make a mockery of himself made THE PACIFIER a pleasant diversion from the usual gross-out comedies that people seem to unfortunately attend these days.
I have always seen Diesel as a fairly one-note, but respectfully earnest and sincere actor first and an action superstar second. He has, more or less, allowed himself to be trapped in the underbelly of mindless action films. Some of them were good, to be sure. I thoroughly enjoyed PITCH BLACK, a low-budget sci-fi flick where he played an effective anti-hero, and also appreciated its sequel – THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK – for the type of cheerfully over-the-top action fest it was. Hell, I even liked Diesel in THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS, a pseudo-exploitation film that worked with his charisma and charm. Yes, Diesel has had some setbacks, like the lackluster A MAN APART and xXx, the latter an over-blown adventure film that was a bit too exuberant for its own good.
Diesel has obviously being trying to carve out a career as the “next action hero”, but this sort of undermines what a good and genuine actor he is. He is mostly known for shooting lots of bullets and blowing things up real good, but it’s his other performances that work against his screen persona that were my favorites. He has a small, but notable role as an honest and noble solider in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, not to mention that he was really invigorating in 2000’s most under-appreciated gem – BOILER ROOM. People are also quick to forget that he was even the bass-heavy, but endearing and sweet voice of the extra-terrestrial robot in THE IRON GIANT.
All of these latter films demonstrated that, beneath his bulky frame and obvious physical presence, lays an actor with a bit more humanity, warmth, and softness to him that would otherwise be vacant in other action heroes. He may not be a truly well rounded actor, but he always comes across as sincere. I think that’s why he works so well in THE PACIFIER because the film plays up to all of his strengths. Yes, he gets to engage in all of those obligatory action scenes of mayhem that die-hard fans want, but he also gets to be a decent, soft-spoken, and caring figure, not to mention the fact that he has to change those poopy diapers.
Oh yes, Diesel does gravitate from being a one-man killing machine to an unmitigated girly man with a heart, but the transition here is enjoyable and makes for a fairly affable and entertaining light comedy that does not push too hard for its laughs. He stars as Shane Wolfe, a competent commando if there ever was one. The film starts off in a sort of James Bondian kind of way where Wolfe and his squad of expert trained Seals attempt to rescue an American scientist that has a secret weapon, so to speak. The scientist has a developed a special software that, if I remember properly, can effectively neutralize an enemy country’s nuclear warheads. In essence, he is a highly wanted man. Needless to say, Wolfe and his men rescue the scientist in fine and not-so-indiscrete fashion (they blow up a boat, gun down men on jet skis, and shoot down a helicopter…all in a day’s work, I guess).
After they have saved the scientist and his encryption key (known as “Ghost”) a major setback hinders the hero, which involves a key casualty. Wolfe then ends up being given a new assignment to protect the scientist’s family at all costs. Wolfe sees this new assignment as a walk in the park because, surly, if he can manage a group of proficiently trained killers, then how bad could a family be? The mother Julie (Faith Ford) must accompany a high ranking navy Intelligence officer to Geneva to go to her husband’s security box there to retrieve the secret contents of Ghost. She promises that it will only take a couple of days, which inevitably sets ups that she’ll be gone for a longer period of time. It seems that she has made the trip successfully, but was unaware that she needed to know the password to gain accessibility to her husband’s box. The Swiss bankers here are laughable stereotypes, who gleefully eat chocolate as they wait for the password. You’d think they’d be more accommodating, but oh well.
Well, since Julie is stuck in Geneva, Wolfe is also stuck with the house full of five rambunctious kids of varying degree of age and inconvenience. There is Zoe (Brittany Snow) one of those bubble-headed blond teenagers that is a material girl first and a pleasant minded sister second. There is then Seth (Max Thieriot) who spends most of his time looking sullen and somber, which sort of gets him into a lot of trouble with the larger bullies at school. Then there is Lulu (Morgan York) who sort of develops an odd crush on Wolfe, and finally there are Peter and the baby, who are so young they don’t really care much about anything. Basically, it does not appear that any amount of Seal training will prepare his for this new “mission”.
Yes, we all know exactly where this film is going. The brutish and obsessively militaristic presence in Wolfe will try to use his disciplinary training and hard tactics to get the kids to learn and gain some respect from their elders. He will do all of this while desperately trying to gain their obedience and confidence, fail miserably at first, but later win them over and develop a strong, emotional family tie to them all. We also know that the kids themselves will, in turn, become better kids and have the place looking like new for when mom comes back. They will hate the thought of their babysitter leaving when she returns because, darn it, they’ve grown to love the big lug that’s trained to kill a man with one stroke.
Okay, THE PACIFIER is woefully pedestrian and conventional at its core, but within the basic conventions of what its working within, it’s sort of cheerfully offbeat, delightful, and a viable comedy that has some decent performances and some genuine laughs. I was not only surprised by how sweet and kind-hearted the film was, but it also was funny quite a few times in the right places and it demonstrated a bit of cleverness with its laughs. Diesel may be “one-note”, but he is very, very humorous in this film.
The film has many chuckle-inducing moments that are sort of smart and sly. I liked when the task master that is Wolfe, after catching Zoe’s boyfriend trying to sneak into the house late one night, screams at him to “Drop and give me 20,” to which the young punk reaches for his wallet. There is a moment that inspires a big laugh with the home’s pet duck. I also liked one little scene where Wolfe tells the young Lulu a bedtime story (“There were these elves that…under a halo of heavy suppressive fire…were trying to get the…secret uranium core…”). There is also one smart sight gag that involves a bit of commentary on movie piracy when Wolfe thinks he has found the real “Ghost” CD-Rom and discovers its true contents. I especially liked a subplot involving a schoolteacher played by Brad Garret, in a truly funny supporting performance, who is giving Seth a hard time at school. When Wolfe steps in to do something about it, Garret drolly responds, “Oh yeah, ya think yer tough? You wanna shave this tiger?” He shows that you can get laughs without having to overplay it. He's funny because of how serious he takes his job (he tells the principle, at one point, that he will "uncover the mystery of the luncheon meat on the roof of the cafeteria as soon as he gets reliable Intel."
Some of the film’s humor even comes at the expense of its action scenes. It seems that Serbians (or is it North Koreans?) want the Ghost and the family dead. There is one fight scene that is kinetic and fast paced while being clever at the same time. It takes place mostly in the baby’s bedroom and makes great use of all available baby toy props and furniture in a sequence that Jackie Chan would clearly approve of.
I laughed a lot during the course of THE PACIFIER, which is resulting in my marginally favorable review. The film is ponderous and one can see where it’s going from a mile away, but it's sweet, carefree, simple-minded, gentle, and kind of appealing enough to warrant a look at. Not to mention that, but Diesel again demonstrates why he is an equally appealing screen presence. Some have found it ironic that he, while trying to carve out an action career, has made a family comedy that became one of his highest grossing films to date. I don’t see the incongruity here, because I have always enjoyed Diesel playing warm and sensitive more than him playing violent and rugged. Much like the kids did in this film, I found that the humor comes out of watching this lethal weapon be reduced to a big, kind-hearted goofball. This formula has been done before, but THE PACIFIER is a droll and silly family comedy that made me laugh in the right places and was sufficiently entertaining. For what it's worth, this film sort of surprised me.