Former gymnast Dan Millman's semi-autobiographical novel Peaceful Warrior has reportedly inspired many with its tale of an athlete who overcomes adversity and injury through New Age-y self-help philosophies. But based on Victor Salva's over-the-top adaptation, many of these pearls of wisdom could be gleaned during an average night on SportsCenter. In lieu of any specific and compelling insight into a performance, many athletes tend to fall back on vague motivational slogans about "living in the moment" and "focusing on the task at hand"—at least those who aren't crediting the Almighty for the game-winning touchdown. Yet Peaceful Warrior accepts such bromides as rocket fuel on the road to self-fulfillment, ways for ordinary people to unload their personal baggage and enter a permanently enlightened state. In other words, it's selling a load of hooey.
In the first of many effects-heavy sequences imposed by director Victor Salva (Jeepers Creepers), University Of California gymnast Scott Mechlowicz imagines himself landing a dismount off the rings that shatters his leg into porcelain pieces. With Olympic qualifiers coming up, Mechlowicz's anxieties turn out to be prescient when a near-fatal motorcycle accident crushes his leg. Doctors wonder if he'll ever walk again, much less compete, but out of desperation, Mechlowicz turns to gas-station attendant Nick Nolte, a mystery man who fancies himself a working-class philosopher. (He even goes under the name Socrates.) Under Nolte's tutelage, Mechlowicz learns to embrace a more clean-living existence and clear out the psychological garbage that's cluttering up his head. The effects are somehow physiological as well, because his leg miraculously heals in time for Olympic tryouts.
Amy Smart appears, disappears for long stretches, and then appears again as Mechlowicz's love interest, though her most important function is to train alongside him in montage sequences. But mostly, Peaceful Warrior focuses on the relationship between Nolte and his young charge, which is a one-way street since it's Mechlowicz who needs healing, not Nolte's serene grease monkey. To keep the drama from sagging into a philosophical spitballing session, Salva calls upon his background in horror and fantasy films to prop up the action, leaning on oppressive effects that make a dropping bead of sweat sound like the coming apocalypse. The What The Bleep Do We Know? crowd may well receive the film's wisdom like communion, but the rest of us are free to gag when Salva tries to jam it down our throats.