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Casualties of War Review

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by Chris McEneany Apr 1, 2006 at 12:00 AM

    Casualties of War Review
    “Take the pretty one ...”

    Brian DePalma flits between the masterpiece and the mediocre. For every Scarface, there is a Snake Eyes. For every Carrie, there is a Phantom Of The Paradise. And for every Carlito's Way, we must suffer a Raising Cain. And, just to keep the vibe going, for The Untouchables, there is always the risible Body Double. It is clearly one extreme or the other. But then he sprang Casualties Of War on an audience that had just done several tours of cinematic duty in Vietnam with the big mid-eighties revival of the genre, spearheaded by Platoon, and it was a complete and radical departure of theme for him, and his fans, that still sits quite squarely in the critical middle-ground between the two ends of his creative spectrum. He hadn't done war before. Or since, for that matter. And it certainly wasn't the best field for him to showcase his talents.

    Nestling in the murky moral no-man's land of Vietnam, this adaptation of the true events surrounding the kidnap, gang-rape and subsequent murder of an innocent Vietnamese village girl by a squad of American soldiers, was a topic that had bugged DePalma (himself a draft-evader) since he first read of it in The New Yorker in 1969. When the book about the incident ???, written by Daniel Lang came out and he looked deeper into it, he became determined to film the story. Beaten to it by a German director, whose anti-American movie based upon the same events, also called Casualties Of War caused considerable problems for the Berlin Film Festival - and has since slunk from view- DePalma shelved his project for a great many years. His telling of the tale only surfaced back in 1989, at the tail-end of the slew of Vietnam War pictures essaying the debacle of America's involvement there. He'd found ripe material for his evocation of the futile war and the horrors it led young men to perpetrate though, and finding a screenwriter who had actually fought in the war, in David Rabe, he finally thought the time was right to bring the harrowing saga to the public. In much the same way that Oliver Stone and Stanley Kubrick had taken fresh-faced young stars and turned them into warriors, DePalma found a cast that were known commodities and sought to re-invent them in his own grim setting, turning their screen personas literally upside down. Thus, Michael J. Fox, seeking to escape from his show Family Ties and Sean Penn, already an actor with brooding intensity, jumped on-board as recruits into DePalma's little pocket of war being filmed in Thailand, portraying, respectively, the innocent Pvt, Eriksson who made the story public, and the searingly intense, yet charismatic, Sgt. Meserve, who instigated the ordeal in the first place. It should be noted that Oliver Stone took this level of casting a stage further when he gained toothy-grinned poster-boy Tom Cruise for the role of paraplegic veteran Ron Kovic in Born On The Fourth Of July.

    “You survive the Nam, you get to live forever, man.”

    Casualties Of War is an impressively mounted and strongly emotional war-time drama from a director whose cinematic flamboyance and knack for sustained suspense would take the story to a hyper-real, almost operatic level. Having the magnificent Ennio Morricone score the film clearly helped in that direction, too. But, despite compelling performances from the two leads and a painfully mesmerising turn form Thuy Tu Le as the poor victim of the “spiritually” lost patrol, Casualties only flirts with success, ham-fisted writing form Rabe taking the film into a tedious jungle of contrivance, appalling dialogue and heavily-loaded, but blank-firing, sentiment. Although determined to tell a different story than that we had become accustomed to with Vietnam flicks, believable scene-setting is still essential, and realism of character absolutely vital for paving the way for the drama to come. But, what we have here are nothing but stock grunts-in-the-field who are resolutely, implacably and damningly just actors “playing” at being soldiers. Gone is the conviction and ultra-credibility of Stone's Platoon. Gone is the intelligence and meditation of damaged souls from Apocalypse Now. Banished is the grit and workmanlike valour of Saving Private Ryan. The squad here spout such ridiculously blatant “in-the-Nam” dialogue, look so utterly clean and neat, and perform the most foolhardy tactics in a combat zone, this side of a Chuck Norris movie. This central error is, I find, unforgivable ... and is all the more astonishing when you consider that Hollywood's greatest Vietnam military advisor, Marine Captain Dale Dye (who also appears in the film as Capt. Hill) was on-hand to keep the movie as realistic as possible. But such talk as riding on “the Freedom Bird” back to the World and wanting to “K.I.A. some V.C, man!!” and the inexcusable sight of certain characters wandering dumbly and casually out on their own through enemy territory is just inviting complete ridicule. To a lot of people this stuff doesn't matter, I know. But to me is smacks of lazy filmmaking, and actors that are just plainly acting. Putting them in soldier costumes, giving them guns and having them swear like troopers does not make them authentic as troopers. Well, I'm afraid this slovenly and clichéd approach just takes me right out of the picture. Even Kubrick's highly stylised Full Metal Jacket made this crucial mistake. Oh, the first half of the film is excellent - but the same lack of believability with regards to soldiers-in-the-field sinks the second.

    “I'm as serious as a heart-attack, you know that.”

    “Yeah ... but this is kidnapping, isn't it?”

    Fox's Eriksson, only three weeks in - and don't we just know it, with “Cherry” this, and “Cherry” that hurled at him every other sentence - is the one who longs to save the teenage girl that Meserve has lifted virtually from her mother's arms, but, in the face of such volatile peer pressure and sadistic psychological torment, winds up powerless to keep his brutal comrades from assaulting her. Although unconvincing as a soldier - as, indeed, are they all - he provides a marvellous emotional magnet for the maelstrom of despicable acts to whirl around. His struggle to find sanity and instil some sense of right and wrong in the minds of the others is stunningly captured, his plight played out through eyes that are filled with helpless anguish. The taunting he gets from his so-called buddies - among them John C. Reilly as the simpleton Hatch, Don Harvey as the one-note thug Clark and John Leguizamo as the part-way sympathetic Diaz - piles on the distress, creating an environment that hellish and surreal. Fox's diminutive stature seems to magnify the odds stacked against him, yet the brutish qualities of the others is continually hampered by their stereotypical depiction. Clark is just a walking, talking conflict cliché - a foul-mouthed, aggressive redneck whose tirades are tiresome in the extreme. He must the hold the record for uttering the wordman more times in one scene than anybody else. Hatch is just a witless goon with a gun, who goes along with the bully-boys because he just doesn't know any different, but his ignorance is more than slightly implausible, as his laughable Ghengis Khan piece clearly illustrates. Leguizamo's Diaz is simply too indistinct to be a proper character. One minute he's frightened of the Sgt's perverted plans and determined to side with Eriksson, and the next he spineless wimp has swapped allegiances and ditched his moral standing altogether. Even in a situation as dangerous as theirs, such thumbnail characterisation is skirting around the moral dilemma with far too much ease. We all know how easily led some people are, but Rabe's writing cuts to the quick with too little attention paid to the inner turmoil that each man must be facing.

    “You probably like the army, don't you, Eriksson? I hate the army.”

    “This ain't the army, Sarge.”

    Only Sean Penn's Tony Meserve - a stout, hardy and popular Sgt. - retains any semblance of deeper personality, other than Eriksson. But, her again, his eagerness t rant and unleash racist obscenity is merely pandering to stock, on-edge combat villainy. His decision to abduct the girl in the first place in some half-baked and aimless retaliation for the death of a comrade (the token black man in the squad and the most galling cliché in the film) is based on what appears to be a huge narrative flaw. We are asked to believe that Meserve and his cronies take the girl not only because of the afore-mentioned fatality, but because the village that neighbours their base-camp is off-limits to Americans for the night before their dawn patrol because, in Meserve's own words, “Charlie's in the whorehouse!” There's no way on Earth that the moral complexity of men at war can be summarised with such lacklustre motivation. Plus, since when would a lowly five-man patrol (with three of them relatively new to the field, as well) go out on a long-range patrol? Not even Special Forces would mount such a task with such underwhelming firepower. No, folks, I know that this story is based on truth, but I suspect that a great many liberties have been taken in order to bring it to the screen.

    “What's the matter, Eriksson? Don't you like girls?”

    The combat scenes, whilst decoratively filmed, aren't up to much either. The opening mortar attack on the initial patrol's position contains one of DePalma's trademarked - and usually excellent - long-drawn-out suspense devices. Having fallen partway through the roof of a VC tunnel, Eriksson hangs suspended as Meserve, a flurry of mortar shells and an enemy soldier below him in the human burrow inch towards him. This set-up sounds great, I'll admit, but think about it for a moment. Why would a VC soldier, knife clenched between his teeth crawl so slowly towards the dangling legs of a stricken G.I.? He'd have been there in a second to carve Eriksson up. It's just an elaborate set-piece that draws too much attention to itself for the sake of dramatic effect. The consequence of this is that it draws attention away from the reality of the scene. The later skirmish is much better, but it is still patently little more than a device to aid the plot. And its denouement after the pivotal tragedy involving the girl, is fudged. Just what exactly happened to Eriksson to have us next see him being choppered out of there? And the sight of Fox emerging from the gory field hospital with the tiniest of bandages wrapped like a girlie hair-slide around his head - and look at how pristinely white it is - is just plain silly. Even the film's bookend chapters of Eriksson on the tram back home, although well-filmed in a sort of dreamy fugue, end on a severely bum-note, with some of the most contrived dialogue in the movie. And as for the utterly perplexing response from Ving Rhames' Lt. Reilly to the allegations made by Eriksson - well, only someone who had been sitting there for hours rehearsing what he was going to say to the complainant before he entered the office could come up with such drivel. Again, Rabe's writing does the story a terrible injustice.

    “You couldn't let it rest, could you? You had to push it ...”

    “Go to Hell ... sir.”

    However, the one aspect of Casualties Of War that works - winning hands down over every other Vietnam war-flick, except Apocalypse Now - is the stunning cinematography, which is nothing short of beautiful. Despite all my criticisms of the film, this spellbinding element will ensure that I return to it again. Time after time, DePalma's movie paints gorgeous vistas across the screen, his eye for the majestic and the striking often taking the breath away. A frequent area for complaint or praise, depending upon how you view such things, is DePalma's style over substance routine. Fashioning fantastically elaborate tracking shots, crane shots and gliding dollies, he literally transforms the jungle from a sweaty, cloying morass into a colourful, almost 3-D environment that simply anchors the attention even when the script is boiling itself away to nothing. Several ravishing sequences come to mind - the reaction angles and view over Eriksson's shoulder after the sniper shot that fells Brown; the full wide frame of the American patrol boat caught in the crossfire; and, best of all, the exchange between Eriksson and Meserve out in the rainstorm after the rape. Stephen H. Burum's photography is never less than scintillating, but it is worth remembering that he took his cue form DePalma's own primitive “stickman” storyboards. But Morricone's score, whilst still very good in its own right, is too tragically grandiose for the material as we see it depicted in the film, very reminiscent, in fact, of his music for State Of Grace, also starring Sean Penn. And his use of pan-flutes certainly evoke memories of Leone's Once Upon A Time In America though, somehow, for me, this score just doesn't accompany the visuals as intimately as it should.

    So, whilst I applaud Rabe's and DePalma's desire to show the darkness of the soul, I don't think they've succeeded at all in exploring the emotional and psychological effects of the dehumanising nature of war, other than creating simply sketched knee-jerk metaphors instead of flesh and blood characters. This is far too complex an issue and too terrible an incident to have such a unlikely film as this to be the vehicle of its examination. Visually stunning, yes ... but Casualties Of War is intellectually and fundamentally something of a letdown. DePalma's film is, itself, a curious casualty of his own cinematic war of style against integrity. This Extended Edition adds about six minutes of footage - more of the trial at the end and a little more of Eriksson being cross-examined, but really there is added to the body of the movie.

    Give him gangsters and not soldiers.

    Please note: the screen-grabs presented here are actually taken from the Making Of documentary on the disc. Due to Sony's anti-copying encoding on this disc, the film itself was actually unplayable on my PC, making it impossible to get any full resolution images. View these pictures just for entertainment purposes.