Hamburger Hill

June 14, 2011
Courtney B. Vance, Hamburger Hill

Hamburger Hill is the third Vietnam battle movie to be released in 1987, and in many ways it may be the most authentic. Not that Platoon and Full Metal Jacket were anything but scrupulous in their re-creations of the Vietnam scene; indeed veterans were centrally involved in the making of all three films to ensure veracity, at least in terms of atmosphere and language.

But Platoon and Full Metal Jacket brought the war to vivid life by imposing ambitious narrative structure and theme to their stories. Hamburger Hill, which is based on a real battle, takes the opposite approach. Here is the war experience rendered in a no-frills style.

In fact, the first 40 or so minutes of the film are almost entirely formless. We see a series of scenes, practically unrelated except that a few characters recur (most of the unknown actors are indistinguishable, with the notable exception of Courtney B. Vance as Doc). These give spiky glimpses of wartime language and behavior.

Finally the movie settles into the doomed attack on a worthless hill. The American forces fight up the hill, are repulsed, and fight back up again. Occasionally they are strafed by their own helicopters. Their bodies are torn apart in gruesome detail, without rhyme or reason.

I suspect writer-producer Jim Carabatsos and director John Irvin made Hamburger Hill into a deliberately formless film because they wish to approximate the actual war. In other words, if the war had no design, why should the film? No shape, no big moments, no cathartic ending; just a series of brutal incidents and sudden death, without a supporting meaning or purpose.

This makes sense in trying to render the war accurately, I suppose, but it does keep Hamburger Hill from being as emotionally engaging as Platoon or Full Metal Jacket. There’s simply nothing to hold on to here, no sense of structure or even forward motion—which, the filmmakers may argue, is precisely the point, just as their impossible-to-keep-straight characters may be true to the heartbreaking blur of bodies passing by in Vietnam.

If this is their intention, it still doesn’t make the film wholly successful. The simplistic nature of so much of the movie, such as the obvious use of the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” finally drags it down, however exact the observations. But the overwhelming claustrophobia of the gray-green cinematography (and Philip Glass’s music) does become relentlessly persuasive after a while.

Carabatsos, who served in Vietnam, has a tendency to slide into movie-cliché situations, though this screenplay is far superior to the pair of turkeys he wrote last year, Heartbreak Ridge and No Mercy. Carabatsos’s dialogue is profane and well-observed, such as the cassette from a girlfriend back home that urges a solder to “smile more in his pictures.” And Carabatsos finds perhaps the ultimate summation of the war experience: A faraway scream puts a shiver into the Asian night and, miles away, a soldier pauses to drawl, “Baaaaad dream….”

First published in the Herald, August 27, 1987

You read this and you think, who is this pipsqueak laying down the law about what’s accurate about war? I think I might have phrased some of this stuff better. The movie had Dylan McDermott, Don Cheadle, and Steven Weber, but I was convinced the guy who would come out of it a star was Courtney Vance. Heckuva performance, but he didn’t really capitalize in the movies much in the years immediately following, did a lot of stage and TV work, and married Angela Bassett. I don’t know where James Carabatsos went.

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Raw Deal

January 11, 2011

Living proof that a sense of humor can help you overcome any obstacles, Arnold Schwarzenegger rolls out his latest slugfest, Raw Deal, with tongue (as usual) in cheek.

Sure, Arnold also carries around those suitcases full of rippling muscles. I suppose that’s a large part of his popularity. As one teen-age girl had it after the sneak preview, “That was nothing great. But Arnold was awesome.”

Still, lots of musclemen have tried movies; most fade fast. Schwarzenegger’s feeling for the absurd and his penchant for one-liners have kept his last couple of action flicks, The Terminator and Commando, popular with young, hip audiences.

His humor is his saving grace. Let’s face it, although Arnold projects a likable personality, his acting powers are limited. That accent, which only gets thicker as his dialogue increases, is a major problem. And the name is not traditional matinee-idol stuff.

None of that has stopped Big Arnie. He just grins, keeps it light, and makes sure the final reel has enough bloodshed to satisfy his millions of thirsty fans.

Raw Deal hews to the formula. Schwarzenegger is an ex-FBI man, railroaded out of the Bureau some years before, now a sheriff in a small Southern town. When an old colleague (Darren McGavin) loses a son to a Chicago godfather (Sam Wanamaker), he calls on Arnold to do a little unauthorized work.

Our man slicks his hair back, adopts a tree-trunk cigar, and infiltrates the family. He also meets a moll (Kathryn Harrold) whose chest rivals his own.

While Raw Deal is quite well-plotted, you know that most of the plot stuff is an excuse for Arnold to get mad toward the end. Sure enough, he straps himself down with plenty of ammo, cranks up the Stones’ “Satisfaction” on his car radio, and proceeds, as one character puts it, to do 100 years of police work in one afternoon.

Through it all, Schwarzenegger keeps up a stream of bon mots. Unfortunately, because the accent (they’ve stopped explaining it) is richer than a Viennese torte, many of these fall dead at his feet. But you always have the idea he’s trying. That’s not quite as facetious as it sounds; his good-natured wise-guy routine builds up strong audience loyalty.

Raw Deal is not as far-out as his last couple of films, and it’s not as much fun either. Director John Irvin, a versatile fellow whose previous outing was with the highbrow pauses of Harold Pinter’s Turtle Diary, never comes close to the nihilistic glee of The Terminator. Irvin’s heart doesn’t really seem to be in the two-fisted genre.

So the weight of the film falls on Arnold’s shoulders—I don’t have to tell you how broad they are—and he delivers the necessary firepower. With a smile. And why not? His career is booming and, by his recent marriage to Maria Shriver, he’s now the newest Kennedy. Man, talk about “Satisfaction.”

First published in the Herald, June 7, 1986

There was a funny exchange on an old “At the Movies” or “Sneak Previews” or wherever the hell Siskel & Ebert were at the time about Kathryn Harrold; Roger was singing her praises in a movie (The Sender, possibly?) and Gene finally said something like, “Oh why don’t you just ask her out?” An epic moment, and unexpectedly human, somehow.

Arnold was in his career groove at this point, and everything was turning to gold. Raw Deal was just one more out of the bratwurst-grinder.


Next of Kin

December 9, 2010

Kinfolk: Bill Paxton, Patrick Swayze, Liam Neeson

Patrick Swayze has been riding the unexpected success of Dirty Dancing for two years now, which is more than can be said for the studio that produced the film (Vestron Pictures went belly-up some months ago). A follow-up, Road House, was a modern Western that horrified critics and didn’t charm Swayze’s female fans; it faded quietly from screens earlier this summer. (I still count it as one of the year’s guiltier pleasures.)

The new one, Next of Kin, is another action movie, toned down a bit, but unlikely to provide another hit. Swayze puts on an accent for this outing: He’s a good ol’ boy from Kentucky, transplanted to Chicago and working as a cop. When his little brother is killed, apparently by members of the Mafia, Swayze has to mollify his enraged kinfolk and settle the score with the mob.

This isn’t easy, for as Swayze learns when his visits home, all of his relatives are sitting around holding their Bibles, pronouncing in low tones that passage about an eye for an eye. In particular, he has to stop his brother (Irish actor Liam Neeson, who really had to put on an accent) from going to Chicago with a sawed-off shotgun and laying waste to people.

Which, in fact, is what his brother does. There is a side plot amongst the bad guys, in which the trigger man (Adam Baldwin) is setting up the son (Ben Stiller) of the Mafia don. These threads come together in a big shoot-out, featuring not only guns but also bows and arrows, in a Windy City cemetery.

Director John Irvin seems frustrated about how to make the material work. He labors over some lighthearted, loving moments between Swayze and his wife (Helen Hunt), but these fall flat. (She is a concert violinist, although Swayze persists in calling the instrument a fiddle.) Then there’s some peculiar low comedy surrounding a couple of the mob henchmen, which suggests that a life of crime is often a barrel of laughs.

Otherwise, characters say the usual things: “When you set up my brother, you forgot to kill me.” Things like that. Swayze delivers these lines with his customary denseness; he always seems to be a step behind everybody else in the movie. Perhaps that’s the secret of his appeal.

Originally published in the Herald on October 27, 1989. 

Next of Kin is one of those 80s pictures that vanished from sight and mind very quickly. And yet: Neeson, Helen Hunt, and Ben Stiller as a mob boss’s son? I have no memory of that whatsoever. Maybe I’m a little hard on Swayze here; he had a real niceness on screen; the curious thing was how he floundered to find fitting vehicles after hitting the Dirty Dancing gusher. Still, there’s Point Break and the deranged Road House and To Wong Foo—the latter a very precise comic performance.