Casualties of War Reviews
PFC Eriksson (Michael J. Fox) is an idyllic soldier new to the territory. He's soldiering with a squad of hardened men lead by the young but volatile Sgt. Tony Meserve (Sean Penn). After Meserve's best friend is killed, he vows revenge. Part of that process involves going to a village to kidnap a girl whom he belives is allied with the VC. His intention is to use her as "mobile R & R". Eriksson is horrified by this, but is outvoted, and looks on in horror and disgust as his squad (which includes debuts from John C. Reilly and John Leguizamo) brutally treats, rapes, then kills the girl.
Despite risk of severe retaliation, and the indifference of his superiors (Ving Rhames and Dale Dye), Eriksson is determined to bring his fellow soldiers to justice.
It seems inevitable that most if not all of the New Hollywood directors have made a war film, specifically one concerning Vietnam. This is Brian DePalma's entry in that category, and, it's quite good.
It lacks a lot of his overt cynicism and gimmickry, focusing instead on heavy themes and character. Don't get me wrong, there's some great camera work, a wonderful look, and a strong score from Ennio Morricone, but this is mostly a showcase from DePalma playing it straight. There's nothing wrong with that either, because it's a pretty solid film.
Yes, the film does get a little too sappy and sentimental towards the end, maybe a bit too feel good, bt it's mostly earned. Also, Fox is quite compelling and convincing, but I think he was perhaps too pure of a character. He's still good though, and really sympathetic. As good as he is though, he of course gets overshadowed by Sean Penn. Penn, as expected is fiercely intense, unhinged, and memorable. The aforementioned supporters are all pretty decent, too, giving hints of greater things to come.
All in all, this is a really good film, and you should check it out. Yeah, it is flawed, but even then it's still pretty worthwhile.
I don't agree with people that say Michael J. Fox was miscast, I think his childish 'eternally young' looks served him in this contained, human, agonizing performance; and
Sean Penn was as amazing as he always is when he plays profoundly immoral characters.
Being that this film is not much of anything if not a little excessive, even the potentially tight runtime of about two hours goes abused, sometimes with simple filler, and often with so much fat around the edges of material that the narrative ends up sticking with each segment for way too long, to the point of wearing you down enough to spot where the originality lapses. On paper, this harsh Vietnam drama has a certain freshness to its interpretation of horrors found in a dehumanizing place of conflict, but in execution, all but all of that originality is betrayed, whether it be because of character types, or because of formulaic set pieces, or because of near-trite dialogue (So, just how many Vietnam soldiers in real life blurted out, "Get some!", over and over again when they manned a gun turret?) that is aggravating enough because of its griminess. As I said, excess is found throughout this gritty affair, and not just within plot structuring, because whether it be through overt obscenities or through even some overtly disturbing visuals and material, this film tends to beat you over the head with grime, as surely as it tends to beat you over the head with dramatics, with sentimentality and other glaring lapses in subtlety. With all my talk of this film's being rather derivative, it is a whole lot like Oliver Stone's "Platoon", in that it is so compelling, yet it would be more so if it didn't get either a little too grimy, or a little histrionic, or all around overbearing at times with its handling of powerful subject matter, limiting dramatic sophistication by limiting subtlety, even with its characterization. In concept, this film is defined by its humanity, thus, in execution, a lot of hard work is put into bringing this character drama's depths to life, and when that hard work doesn't pay off, believe it or not, it really misfires, offering little immediate development right away, before reaching a body that overdevelops the characters, as types with few layers that the performers work with as best they can, but not well enough to compensate for thin characterization. This lack of subtlety, even in exposition, reflects a sloppiness that really shouldn't be in a film this valuable in concept, and generally inspired in execution, for if there was more grace and tightness, then the final product could have gone far. As things stand, however, what the film slips up on its more than makes up for with what it does so well, even in, of all things, artistry.
Composed by the great Ennio Morricone, this film's score, while thematically unique for Morricone, is a bit formulaic, and sometimes tonally abrasive, but on the whole, it's predictably outstanding, combining that trademark Vietnam War film fusion of mild psychedelia and great intensity with Morricone's own trademark Italian whimsy, in the vein of "Once Upon a Time in America", in a manner that is aesthetically solid, not unlike cinematography by Stephen H. Burum that may a little too subdued in a lot of ways, but offers just enough grit to be rugged and sell a lot of the grit of this drama. Both the visual style and the visuals the style falls over help bring life to the immersion value of this grimy war portrait, as art director Bernard Hides nails the setting of wartime Vietnam to the point of drawing you in, particularly with further technical proficiency kicks in during intensely well-staged and tight, if a tad noisy action sequences. If Brian De Palma delivers on nothing else, it's style and action, but really, style is still underplayed, and action is limited, thus, De Palma has to primarily focus on his dramatic abilities, and when it comes to that, he slips up more than he probably should with his overt disturbances, sentimentality and other abrasive touches, yet once he gets a grip on his dramatic vision, the film all but shines with its tension, resonance and, for that matter, entertainment value. Although it is done an almost great injustice at time, this film's subject matter is handled well enough to never feel as thin as its execution, which is good, considering the thematic and dramatic value of this potentially unique portrait on the loss of innocence, humanity and overall decency in the midst of war, in full, horrifying form, done a rewarding amount of service by both De Palma and David Rabe. Rabes' script is a mess of pacing and subtlety issues, and even characterization thinness, but it is just comfortable enough with its depths to provide plenty of dramatic potential to be brought to life by De Palma, as well as the most consistent strength: the acting. Well, some of the performances take some getting used to, as the material is so abrasive, when not thin with characterization, but the portrayals do best what the writing and direction slip up at doing at times: keeping this drama's human heart pumping, with Sean Penn being particularly chilling in his hardcore portrayal of profoundly disturbed man who feels an evil environment justifies evil doings, while Michael J. Fox proves to be truly revelatory in his convincing, subtly layered portrayal of a young solider whose interpretation of justice is clouded by certain peers' vile ways, and by how other peers interpret this villainy. These performances really define what could have been done to make this drama outstanding, but where the final product could have fallen as an underwhelmingly misguided take on worthy subject matter, there is enough inspiration to drive the effort as, at the very least, rewarding.
Overall, there are some unnecessary conventions, and even less necessary excesses, in pacing, obscenities and sentimentality, which join somewhat thin characterization in establishing some glaring subtlety issues which threaten the final product's reward value, ultimately secured by the beautiful score work, handsome cinematography, generally effective direction and scripting, and powerful performances - especially those by Sean Penn and Michael J. Fox - which do enough justice to the valuable themes of "Casualties of War" to craft an ultimately rewarding portrait on the horrors of dehumanization during wartime.
3/5 - Good