Published September 1, 1998
The Mighty directed by Peter Chelsom and based on the novel by Rodman Philbrick, is at least an improvement annoying Simon Birch of last month, though it uses essentially the same device: doomed crippled kid who is nevertheless smart as a whip (I have known a lot of crippled kids, by the way, and never noticed that intelligence was commoner among them than it is among any other segment of society) teams up with an outcast “normal” kid who is, in one way or another, a kind of emotional cripple. Together they have heartwarming adventures and teach us something about life and love and loss. These are Bill Bennett movies: OK if you like that kind of preachiness and uplift (though Birch is anti-Christian), but not to my mind very impressive examples of cinematic art.
The difference between them is that The Mighty‘s uplift at least comes from the heart, where Simon Birch‘s is mere cynical manipulation. Its characters are more likable and even more believable (though still not very believable), though its story is almost equally far-fetched. The adventures of the little crippled boy, Kevin “Freak” Dillon (Kieran Culkin), and the big dumb classmate, Max Kane (Elden Henson), who carries him around on his shoulders, are just as goofy, most of them, and even dangerous. In the climactic one, little Kevin takes on a giant ex-con (James Gandolfini) with nothing but a squirt gun filled with soap, vinegar and pepper instead of calling the police to tell them what he knows. But at least he is given some reason for it in his enthusiasm for the legends of the Round Table and the idea of going on quests to protect the weak and right wrongs.
The story is narrated, also as in SB by the surviving, “normal” kid, Max, who is a butt for the other children, not only because of his size and his stupidity but also because his father killed his mother. “Killer Kane, Killer Kane,” chant terrifying “Blade” and his Doghouse Boys, “Had a son who had no brain.” Max lives with his grandparents whom he calls Gram (Gena Rowlands) and Grim (Harry Dean Stanton) and has no friends. When the Freak moves in next door with his fetching single mother (“My father was a magician,” Freak tells Max: “He heard the words ‘birth defect’ and he disappeared”), Gwen Dillon (Sharon Stone), he helps to teach him to read. Max is at first as wary of him as he is of the other children, but Freak tells him to “think of it as a partnership: you need a brain and I need legs. And the Wizard of Oz doesn’t live in South Cincinnati.”
If such witty remarks are just a little flat, at least they are not irritatingly smart-alecky like Simon Birch’s, but the plot is way too melodramatic and might almost suggest that Chelsom is making fun of the boys. I like the idea of big, dumb Max being civilized by exposure to Kevin’s romantic ideas of chivalry, as well as exorcizing the ghost of the murderer-father. “That’s not who I am and that’s not who you are either,” the Freak convinces him. “A knight proves his words by his deeds.” But Mr Gandolfini’s villain and his accomplices, Loretta Lee (Gillian Anderson) and her boyfriend Iggy (Meat Loaf), are mere caricatures and impossible to take seriously. The tear-jerking ending is also too predictable. But if you’re in need of a movie to take the kiddies to, especially young boys, you could do a lot worse.