Movie Review: “Man in the Camo Jacket” takes the combat to cancer with his music

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You make a documentary about a rock star fighting cancer by donning military garb and starting a charity, you figure you’ve got your righteous uplifting side of the story covered.

What you can’t count on is the guy’s wife being diagnosed with cancer herself, after you’ve locked down and finished your picture.

That bit of knowledge would have added drama and pathos to Russ Kendall’s “Man in the Camo Jacket,” about Mike Peters of The Alarm and his crusade to get fans to sign up as bone marrow donors. It’s a nice, almost for-fans-only film about Peters, The Alarm, the New Wave/MTV era of rock and Peters’ post-stardom combat with leukemia.

Despite having scads of contemporaries, from Billy Bragg to Billy Corgan, Martha Quinn to Slim Jim Phantom (“The Stray Cats”) sing his praises, the film does a middling job at highlighting Peters’ importance in music, failing to decipher the lyrics for the uninitiated.

The songs — “Blaze of Glory,” “68 Guns” and “Call to Action” connect The Alarm to their sound-alikes, The Clash.

The hair connected them to Flock of Seagulls.

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The film charts the rise, plateau and fall of a rock band — Peters announcing his departure, on stage, at the end of a 1991 show, years past their peak.

There was novelty and chutzpah in the way they manufactured their “big break.” They pretended to be the opening act for The Stray Cats on a UK tour. They were found out and ordered to stop setting up their gear. But The Cats admired their brass, and assented.

It finds a little fun in Peters’ “45 RPM” stunt — cutting a hit, releasing it under an assumed name, with much younger musicians shown on the music video, highlighting the ageism of rock. A little cinematic immortality comes onscreen with “Vinyl.”

And then cancer hits, and the relentlessly upbeat Peters decides to don the titular camouflage jacket, to not let chemo or anything else keep him off stage and off the road. Two battles with it later, he’s still going, assisted by a fellow survivor in setting up his bone marrow charity — the Love, Hope and Strength Foundation.

And at his side, the entire time, was and is his bride and the mother of his children, Jules.

You don’t zero in on the film’s emotion remoteness until you Wikipedia Peters and realize Jules was diagnosed with breast cancer after “Man With the Camo Jacket” was filmed.

The picture is pleasant enough, righteous in its cause and inspiring in its “I’ve got no time for cancer” message. But the emotional body blow her discovery must have been would have upped the stakes in the movie just as surely as it shattered, or at least seriously rattled their lives.

Peters, never shown having a moment of very human and understandable self-pity or worry, would surely have presented a different face to the camera had it captured him dealing with her cancer, too.

2half-star6

MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: Mike Peters, Billy Bragg, Jules Peters, Billy Corgan, Duff McKagen, Martha Quinn, Fred Armisen, Slim Jim Phantom
Credits: Directed by Russ Kendall. An XLRator release.
Running time: 1:17

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