Men of Honor

“Men of Honor” tries to be a lot of things — inspiring against-all-odds story, poignant human drama, exciting macho adventure — but the thing it succeeds most at is being a second-rate melodrama.

Oh, the scenes between would-be Navy diver Carl Brashear (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and his tacked-on subplot of a love interest, Jo (Aunjanue Ellis)! He wants to continue his career despite physical hindrances, and she wants him to see reason. How their dialogue drips with movie-of-the-week sentiment and soap opera emotional fakery!

Our story, told in a mostly linear fashion with occasional jarring jumps in time by director George Tillman, Jr., is based on the real-life exploits of Carl Brashear, son of a Kentucky share-cropper. Carl is determined to make something of himself and therefore joins the Navy in 1952. Alas, he finds himself a cook: All the good jobs go to the white men.

After showing a prowess for swimming and diving, he is allowed on deck, and he eventually gets into diving school. The diving school is taught by loose cannon Master Chief Billy Sunday (Robert De Niro, in full F-wordy ferocity), recently demoted after an incident on the same boat from which Carl displayed his ability. In other words, Carl and Sunday had run into each other before, and Sunday the racist doesn’t like Carl the black man.

They develop a grudging respect for each other, though, as Sunday slowly shows himself to be a good man at heart. His personal life is a bit messy, with a wife (Charlize Theron) too young for him and a drinking problem that only makes him meaner. He’s constantly at odds with the Navy, and before long, the roles have reversed, as Carl has prospered and Sunday has endured one demotion after another.

The intent of this awkwardly episodic film was probably to show Carl and Sunday as having parallel stories. The problem is, their stories aren’t parallel enough, and the result is just that it’s difficult to tell who the main character is.

Furthermore, as one chapter in one of their lives is finished, another starts up immediately, making for a film that flows like a mountain stream: smooth, but with no discernible end in sight. It doesn’t build to anything. There are climaxes, but we soon learn to disregard them, since none of them ever actually indicates the film is winding down.

Gooding plays Carl with all the quiver-voiced Oscar-clip fervor you’d expect in a movie whose main character (assuming it’s Carl) is apparently up for sainthood. Theron, meanwhile, increases the weirdness quotient in every scene she’s in — honestly, if there was ever an underdeveloped, unnecessary character in a movie, it’s her, though Jo gives her a run for her money in that category.

De Niro, on the other hand, is an old pro at making mediocre material sound good. Even his rushed “why I’m a racist” monologue — delivered while holding Gooding’s head under water — seems reasonable when it’s coming out of him. He’s got that scowly, terrifying look that makes you respect him as an actor while fearing him as a human being. He’s a touch of solid professionalism in a film that is otherwise overlong and undercooked.

C (; R, abundant harsh profanity, brief gore, other mild violence.)