Renaissance Man is a 1994 American comedy film directed by Penny Marshall, and stars Danny DeVito, Gregory Hines, James Remar and Cliff Robertson. In Australia, the film is known under the title of Army Intelligence.
Bill Rago (DeVito) is a divorced advertising executive down on his luck. When he loses his job in Detroit, the unemployment agency finds him a temporary job: teaching basic literacy classes at a nearby U.S. Army training base, Fort McClane.
Initially unenthusiastic, Rago finds that he has only six weeks to teach a group of DD's - 'Dumb Dawgs', the basics of comprehension and use of English language. Most of the soldiers are only semi-literate and equally unenthusiastic.
Unable to connect with his pupils and desperate to spark their interest, Rago quotes from his favorite play, Hamlet by William Shakespeare. They are unfamiliar with it (or even the concept of a "play") and a small initial spark of interest is generated. He casts each student as a character in a classroom reading, then takes everyone on a field trip across the Blue Water Bridge to Stratford, Ontario, Canada, to a live performance by Shakespearean actors. He introduces them to Shakespeare's Henry V as well.
In the meantime he takes steps to mend bridges with his daughter by buying her an airline ticket to Mexico - as well as buying her a Newtonian Telescope - so that she can start on the path to becoming a professional astronomer.
Despite the disapproval of their hard-as-nails Drill Sergeant Cass (Hines), and the loss of one of the trainees, Pvt. Hobbs, who is revealed as a drug dealer hiding under an assumed identity, Rago sets an end-of-term oral examination. Even the friendly Capt. Murdoch in charge of the project doesn't expect the soldiers to pass Rago's class, adding that if they fail, they will be discharged from the Army.
Hobbs writes a letter to Rago and Murdoch, whose letters to the prison warden may result in him getting an early parole. Hobbs says he read Othello in the prison library (the librarian said he was the first inmate in 16 years to request Shakespeare) and was thinking about taking college classes once he's released.
While on duty, on a dare from Cass in front of other men, one of the soldiers recites the St. Crispin's Day Speech by King Henry V while in full combat gear in the middle of a rainstorm during a night exercise; the speech moves even the hardened Sgt. Cass. The students then all pass Rago's class, with flying colors.
Rago meets and dates Marie, a soldier in the records department, who helps him do some investigation before the base's graduation ceremony. It results in one of his students being presented with the Silver Star medal his father was to have been awarded posthumously, after he was killed in Vietnam.
As the proud soldiers march at their graduation parade, Rago is saluted by his "graduates." He signs on to continue teaching soldiers-in-training.
Filming began on September 13, 1993, and ended on November 20, 1993. The scenes at the fictional "Fort McClane" were actually filmed at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. The production trailers were set up alongside the barracks on "Tank Hill". During the filming, countless soldiers were filmed doing P.T. (physical training) and B.R.M. (basic rifle marksmanship), and the graduation scene of the film was shot during numerous takes of an actual basic training graduation. The scene of Danny DeVito on a pay phone was shot at a phone bank that countless soldiers have used to call home during basic training. The scenes of DeVito going over the bridge from Detroit to Canada are actually him driving over the Blue Water Bridge in Sarnia, Point Edward, Ontario and Port Huron, Michigan.
Renaissance Man received many negative reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film one and a half stars out of a possible four. Ebert said that "the touch that was used so well in director Penny Marshall's previous films Big and A League of Their Own are totally missing in Renaissance Man and it feels like a cross between Dead Poets Society and Private Benjamin but does not have the warmth or spirit of those films." He also wondered what Devito's character teaching Shakespeare's plays had to do with the training of the military recruits. Ebert gave it a thumbs-down on his television show, but partner Gene Siskel enjoyed it as pleasant fare and gave it a thumbs-up. It currently holds a 17% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
The film flopped at the U.S box office, grossing only US$24 million domestically on an estimated budget of US$40 million. It was hindered by competing with summer blockbusters such as Speed, True Lies, The Flintstones, and The Lion King.
A formulaic fish-out-of-water comedy, RENAISSANCE MAN matches a resentful, type-A loser with a bunch of lovable screw-ups against the backdrop of this man's army.
Bill Rago (Danny DeVito) is a brilliant but arrogant advertising man whose inflated ego eventually gets him fired and lands him on the unemployment line. To his horror, he finds a job there: he's told he has to take a short-term teaching position at a nearby army base, or his benefits will be
terminated. He's not a military type--pre-dawn reveille nearly gives him a heart attack--and he has nothing but contempt for his class, a cross-section of the worst the volunteer army has to offer. If he can't teach them basic language proficiency, they're all going to be drummed out of the
military; they've already been labeled the dumbest of the dumb, and they're sullen and resentful.
Rago's attitude changes the day they cajole him into reading Shakespeare to them, and the power of great literature wakes up their underused minds. Rago begins to get to know them: Donnie (Lillo Brancato, Jr.) is a street smart kid from Brooklyn who's never read anything more challenging than a
comic book, but blossoms when he's challenged. Miranda (Stacey Dash) is lonely and feels profoundly rejected by her family and society; she sees the army as her last shot. Jamaal (Kadeem Hardison) is quick with the smart remarks, but secretly feels he's looked down upon. Jackson (Richard T. Jones)
coasted through school on a football scholarship, and never had to learn anything. Roosevelt (Khalil Kain) is hiding out from the law. Brian (Peter Simmons) is slow and haunted by the memory of his father, who fought in Vietnam. Tommy Lee (Mark Wahlberg) is determined to use the military to better
himself, and Mel (Greg Sporleder) is an amiable follower with an attention deficit disorder. With Rago's encouragement, they all make tremendous progress, despite the hostility of their training officer Sergeant Cass (Gregory Hines), who thinks they're screw-ups and that Rago is wasting their--and
One by one, the recruits master their fears and live up to their responsibilities, and Rago becomes a kinder and gentler person; he even patches up his relationship with his estranged daughter. He devises an exam for his students, and when he's told by Colonel James (Cliff Robertson) that he
shouldn't give them a test because if they fail it they'll be thrown out of the Army, he gives the class a choice. Would they rather all be allowed to leave the class without a grade, or do they want to challenge themselves? They choose the challenge, and they all pass. Rago, now an army man,
looks forward to taking on a new class.
RENAISSANCE MAN is an exceptionally unoriginal comedy with a heart-tugging streak as big as Fort Bragg, but it succeeds perfectly well on its own unambitious terms. The cast is slick and well-directed, and pint-sized comedian Danny DeVito's trademark brand of frustrated bluster is perfectly
suited to the role of Rago, the vicious flack whose vitriolic tongue defends a heart of pure Jell-O. His transformation into a warm, loving teacher of society's outcasts may not be precisely convincing, but it's smoothly done.
RENAISSANCE MAN has all the right things to say: that we all have to stop and smell the roses, that our family and friends are more important than high-powered jobs, that everyone has talents and the trick is to find them, that the human spirit can flourish under the least promising of
circumstances, and that you can't win if you're not willing to risk failure. This last lesson, of course, is one the film itself ignores; RENAISSANCE MAN plays it safe at every turn. There are no bad kids in Rago's class, and no truly stupid ones. They're all just misunderstood and neglected, and
their miserable lives have miraculously failed to scar them so badly that they can't be reached in a matter of months by the first guy who believes in them. The worst thing that happens to any of Rago's kids is that Roosevelt goes to jail after Rago persuades him to tell all, but his classmates
and new found friends write to him, and he learns to accept responsibility for his actions. We know he'll come out of prison a better man. Thus RENAISSANCE MAN is a film filled with laughs and lessons so easy that they're instantly forgettable. Despite a major promotional effort, the picture
performed disappointingly--a career setback for director Penny Marshall, who had become Hollywood's most bankable woman director on the strength of the smash hits BIG and A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN, as well as the critical success AWAKENINGS. (Profanity.)