Based on Dan Millman’s cult classic memoir, Way of the Peaceful Warrior, Victor Salva’s film offers a shining example of what some have heralded as a new genre of "spiritual cinema." In the film Dan Millman (Scott Mechlowicz) is a talented college gymnast who lives only for himself. His quest to win at any cost sets him apart from the rest of the team. His false belief that he is self-sufficient is about to take him to whole new realms, where his core belief system will be challenged, and he will change.
Dan’s remarkable talent and good fortune are matched only by his arrogance. At the height of his game, he develops insomnia and is haunted by nightmares, premonitions of his worst fears coming true. Out walking one fine 3:00 AM, Dan comes upon a mist-enshrouded gas station near the top of the Berkeley hills (the film is set on UC Berkeley campus), The bearded old attendant (Nick Nolte) mysteriously pops up on the roof, exasperating and beguiling Dan.
The old guy begins spouting what sounds like New-Age psycho-babble. When Dan dismissively nicknames the attendant Socrates, he unknowingly intimates the truth. Nolte has not looked this fine in film in a long time and he plays this down-on-the-farm Obi Wan Kenobi with grace, humor and conviction. Dan’s growing faith in values greater than himself deepens as a part of his growing relationship with Socrates. The more Dan learns to trust Socrates, the more the audience senses what is really going on. The performances of Nolte and Mechlowicz build, harmonizing and moving in counterpoint, flowing back and forth, like a duet. This alone makes Peaceful Warrior a film worth seeing.
The softly erotic undertones and the soft-focus look at Ivy-league Animal House levity typify the warm fuzzy ideology that the direction and cinematography Peaceful Warrior showcases. Actors were chosen for the parts and then trained as gymnasts. This becomes telling as the camera’s protracted fixation on these young men’s bodies reveals they are definitely not gymnasts, but buffed actors. The medium becomes the message in Peaceful Warrior, whether Socrates is pointing Dan to higher values, such as "service to others is the highest purpose of life," or creating a moment of mindfulness in Dan, and thereby, in the viewing audience. By turns a riveting study of the world of competitive gymnastics, a parable for an alternative vision for today’s society, and a study in the psychology of mentoring, Peaceful Warrior is a satisfying movie-going experience, with or without "the message."