War Buffs Will Go Along for "Ride"
Mike Clark
USA TODAY

Ken Burns and Scarlett O'Hara notwithstanding, there haven't been as many Civil War movies as one might think - at least in proportion to the lasting historical significance of the tragedy. Director Ang Lee's long and lumpy Ride With the Devil (2.5 stars out of four) is redeemed some by unromanticized authenticity, but it's likely to be appreciated most (and perhaps exclusively) by subject enthusiasts just happy to see the film exist.

Headlined by the not-always-dynamic acting mix of Skeet Ulrich, Tobey Maguire and pop singer Jewel, the film takes a Confederate viewpoint in its portrayal of the makeshift Bushwhackers - a band of guerrillas who burned out and murdered Union sympathizers, just as their Northern Jayhawker opposites did in the reverse. In the course of this 2-hour epic, these ragtag causists don't accomplish very much - and they know it. This is one of the movie's key points but also one of its dramatic liabilities.

Jake (Maguire) has a German-emigre and pro-Union father who is killed by Yankees well aware of his son's sentiments. Jack (Ulrich) is the son of a plantation owner, George (Simon Baker), a young edition of a Southern gentleman, and - in the movie's most interesting role, though belatedly so - Holt (Jeffrey Wright) is an ex-slave loyal to the Bushwhackers' cause because George purchased and freed him.

There are several peripheral characters, but those four and a war widow (Jewel) are the principals upon which the movie depends.

Lee's direction seems colder and more impersonal than in any of his previous pictures, which include three charming Taiwanese comedies (Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman) as well as Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm. Despite some capable action scenes (including an elaborately staged attack on Lawrence, Kan.) and the overall scope of Frederick (Blue Velvet) Elmes' cinematography, the movie starts to engage only in the later going when Wright's role takes on prominence and Maguire begins to amuse when he gets trapped in a relationship with the widowed Jewel.

Their courtship (if that's what it is) isn't all that compelling, but it does relieve some of the frequent monotony (which, in fairness, probably reflects how the Bushwhackers' lives probably were). Jewel is more like an acting zircon because she just can't project, but at least she looks the part, and her novelty value isn't unwelcome. Though Elvis got to sing in his Civil War movie (screen debut Love Me Tender), Lee has wisely resisted shoehorning in any Jewel vocals until the end credits - though a song break would have been a given four decades ago.