||Casualties of War
1989 - R - 120 Mins.
|Director: Brian DePalma|
|Written By: David Rabe|
|Starring: Michael J. Fox, Sean Penn, John C. Reilly, John Leguizamo, Don Harvey, Ving Rhames, Dale Dye, Thuy Thu Le |
|Review by: John Ulmer
You either hate Brian DePalma, or you love him. He's either a rip-off of Hitchcock or the next master of suspense. His films are either awful or bad.
It's selective. People either love or hate "Scarface." They either love or hate "Raising Cain." "Mission: Impossible" is either one of the smartest films you've ever seen, or one of the dumbest. "Snake Eyes" has style or nothing.
So he tried "Casualties of War," two years after "Platoon" came out in 1987, in order to change his image and imitate Oliver Stone with the film's hard and gritty portrayal of war. And it works -- to a certain extent.
The pros: Good true story, fine acting, fairly strong script, good emotional heart-tuggers.
The cons: Sean Penn's accent, DePalma's rather boring direction, a somewhat contrived lead character, and a mildly fake feel to the film.
Fox is Eriksson, an infantryman with a wife and daughter who joins the fight in Vietnam and witnesses a brutal murder and rape. Supposedly based on a true story and a novel by Daniel Lang, it all starts when Eriksson is transferred to a veteran five-man platoon led by Meserve (Penn), a 20-year-old New Yorker with a thick accent and no moral standards. Eriksson watches in horror as they raid a Vietnamese village and kidnap a young woman (Thuy Thu Le). They make her march with them and then later rape her, with the exception of Eriksson, who watches in disgust and tries to free the girl -- but too late, since Meserve has already given the order for her death.
This is essentially a story of depravity and morals, fed with a backdrop of a true story that will haunt a lot of viewers who aren't able to stomach a lot of sex and violence -- especially considering the context both are used in.
The problems with the film bring it down a notch or two. DePalma, notorious for outlandish filming and style, tries to make a new mold for himself -- but he can't help but slip into his old form again. Check out the scene where Fox confronts Dale Dye, a retired Military Captain who provides a commentary on the new DVD for "Platoon," which he also starred in and was an advisor on. Watch as DePalma bends the camera at an awkward angle -- for no purpose whatsoever.
I respect filmmaking techniques when they're done for a purpose. "Scarface" is a great movie. I've always had a soft spot for "Raising Cain." But both films used the awkward angles and outlandish styles to their advantage -- "Scarface" with what DePalma described as its "coked-out music," and "Cain" because it dealt with split personality disorder -- something that might trigger different angles on screen.
Here it makes no sense to use them.
Michael J. Fox, one of my favorite actors, tries his best to convince us that someone like himself would survive in Vietnam as long as he does -- but fails. The film is preachy about morals and war -- but it tries too hard and turns Eriksson into a type of Lone Saint. He wouldn't have survived an hour with that attitude -- his own men would've killed him off long before the "gooks."
Penn's accent is too comical -- in Lang's book the kid was from Brooklyn. Penn shouldn't have tried to become the character in the book -- he should have stayed himself. Penn's a great villain, but here he's nothing more than a decent one.
This movie isn't bad by any degree of criticism. It has its flaws, but for the most part it's an enjoyable movie. The worst thing about it is that it's not very memorable, and it's not on the same level as "Platoon" or "Apocalypse Now." But regardless, it works.
And hey, you get to see Ving Rhames with hair.