'Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk' Review: A Technological Marvel Is Done in by a 'Tired' Story

Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) talks to Shroom (Vin Diesel, right) in TriStar Pictures' 'Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk.' Credit: Mary Cybulski

2.5 stars (out of 4)

Years from now, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk will be remembered as a 3D-HD game-changer that depicted the ghastly horrors of the Iraq War — and, um, what it’s really like to perform with Beyoncé

Say this for the drama: Thanks to staggeringly immersive technology, it stands out like no other in recent memory. But the ambitious experiment doesn’t quite work, as every person who puts on the special glasses will be able to see that expensive effects can’t cover for clunky dialogue and a story so tired that it might as well have mononucleosis.

(Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk premiered Friday, October 14, at the 54th annual New York Film Festival and will be released in theaters November 11.)    

Though Kristen Stewart, Vin Diesel, Chris Tucker and Steve Martin fill out the eclectic cast, the real star is Ang Lee. The two-time Best Director Oscar winner, who has helmed films as diverse as The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain, Sense & Sensibility and Life of Pi, decided to shoot the project with 4K HD cameras in 3-D at an accelerated frame rate of 120 frames-per-second. This is a first. In non-tech-nerd terms: When a ray of sunshine peeks through the Middle Eastern desert skies, you’ll practically be able to feel the warmth on your skin. When soldiers huddle together in a blinged-out Hummer en route to a football game, you’ll believe you’re riding shotgun.

The movie, set in 2004, is told from the point of view of 19-year-old American soldier Billy Lynn (newcomer Joe Alwyn). He and his Bravo Squad have become instaheroes after a video surfaces of the group fighting the enemy under duress. Now, as part of their victory tour, they’re asked to take part of a football game halftime show in Dallas on Thanksgiving. The headliners: Destiny’s Child, circa their “Baby Boy” era.

Billy is not comfortable in the role. His superior (Diesel) was killed during the attack, and he’s still in mourning. ("It was the worst day of my life," he explains.) Even as well-wishers at the game — including the brash football team owner (Martin) — gush over him on the football field, he can't stop flashing back to his time on the battlefield. His commanding officer (Garrett Hedlund) wants him to do another tour of duty; his media manager (Tucker) shills outside offers; his sister (Stewart), sensing he has a form of PTSD, desperately begs him to stay home for good. To Billy, it's all white noise. Nobody truly understands.  

That’s where the technology comes in. The peripheral characters may not grasp what Billy has endured, but Lee uses the 4K HD in hopes that audiences will. Alas, it has the reverse effect. The action is so hyperreal that it looks totally phony. Sure, people may jump in their seats when a bullet flies through the screen, but there’s no emotional component in watching the fatalities pile up. 

By stripping away all the usual cinematic stylings of a typical war picture (such as the up-close-and-personal grittiness in American Sniper), all that remains is a distracting theatrical-like staginess. Put it this way: Remember when 30 Rock used to air live episodes and everything seemed a tiny bit off because the artifice was gone? It’s kind of like that. Indeed, the most tension-filled part of Billy’s experience is not the sequence in which he shoots his gun — it’s his uncertainty as he marches on stage behind a gyrating Beyoncé during the group’s kinetic performance of “Soldier.” (The music is legit; the visual of Queen Bey is not. Kudos to the actress who got paid to play her double.)

Impressive cinematic bells and whistles can only go so far. A compelling story is just as imperative, and this is where the movie flails. Scenes in which Billy gets high in the stadium and makes out with a perky cheerleader are uncomfortably flat. Every person in the stadium who's not a war vet comes off like a self-serving Red State buffoon — especially Martin, who hams it up in a Southern drawl and has a climactic argument with Billy about … the movie rights to his story?! (Only Stewart attempts to act like she’s in a real film.) When Billy solemnly tells an outsider, “I’m not a hero, I’m a soldier!” the gravitas hovers around zero.

Lee deserves many kudos for drawing outside the 3-D lines and trying something innovative. But when this movie ultimately lands on Netflix, it will not hold up without its special armor. Feel free to punt it. 

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