Off Limits

January 17, 2013

offlimitsNow that we’ve gotten the definitive films about Vietnam out of the way—movies that deal with the Vietnam War itself as a phenomenon, such as The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket—it’s time for the genre film to move in. Thus in Good Morning, Vietnam, we see the sketch comedy set in Saigon; in Off Limits, it’s the formula cop movie.

The cops are McGriff (Willem Dafoe) and Perkins (Gregory Hines); according to the formula, one is white, one is black. They’re patrolling the seediest streets of Saigon in 1968, as part of a special Army investigation unit, when they detect a pattern in a series of prostitute killings.

As it turns out, the suspect list includes some high-ranking officers in the American services, which means that McGriff and Perkins had best chill the investigation or risk losing their jobs, or worse. Naturally, they continue, trying to find both the killer and “some (bleeping) meaning” to concentrate on in the madness around them.

Director and co-screenwriter Christopher Crowe creates a hellish environment for his violent heroes, all dirty rooms and bloody corpses. The Americans have contempt for their South Vietnamese allies, and the contempt is reciprocal. The only oasis is a church where the cops meet a nun (Amanda Pays) who helps them on the trail of the killer.

In whodunit terms, Off Limits is a bit clumsy. You can see the real culprit coming from way down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and when the explanation does arrive, it renders the movie’s most memorable scene inexplicable.

That scene has the cops confronting their prime suspect, a crazed officer (Scott Glenn) who nearly tops Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now for scary insanity. Glenn takes them up in a helicopter and begins to heave Viet Cong out the door, as a prelude to his own reckless action. It’s a startling scene.

The movie has a few of them. Even when it seems to be falling apart, Off Limits does have some brutal power, and it’s gritty enough to make you want to take a shower after watching it.

What it lacks is chemistry. Dafoe, who was so memorable as the Christ-like sergeant in Platoon, has a withdrawn, pinched quality, and it doesn’t mesh with Hines’ more open style. Fred Ward is just right as their superior, who can’t believe these guys are expending this much energy on a case involving murdered prostitutes, a case that nobody cares about anyway. He can’t see that’s exactly why they’re doing it.

First published in the Herald, March 1988

The generic title didn’t help, either. And by the way: Amanda Pays—least likely movie nun ever? Still, the whole thing sounds just intriguing enough to take another look sometime.


The Keep

October 9, 2012

The Keep is easily the strangest film to be released this Christmas season. It’s something of an arthouse horror movie, and it’s almost sure to get lost in the shuffle of the holidays.

The Keep is an ancient castle—nobody seems to know how long it’s been standing—in the hills of Romania. It must be of some strategic value, because German soldiers occupy the fortress (the film is set in 1941), despite the cryptic warnings of the castle caretaker.

The first evening in the Keep, a couple of soldiers pry loose a stone from the wall—a wall that, as the German colonel (Jurgen Prochnow) observes, seems to have been built to keep something in rather than keep someone out—and let fly a maelstrom of special effects: smoke, wind, and bright light.

What they’re really setting free is a creature who may be absolute evil and possess ultimate power. To flex his muscles a little, he starts ripping German soldiers in half, which quickly gets the attention of the S.S., who send one of their slimiest officers (Gabriel Byrne) over to clear up the situation.

The beast can’t actually leave the grounds of the Keep until someone pure comes long to transport a talisman out of there, thus letting the creature off its chain, as it were.

That pure soul is Dr. Theodore Kuzar (Ian McKellen), a medievalist who actually makes contact with the monster. Kuzar becomes convinced that the creature will help destroy the Nazis, and he agrees to carry the talisman out.

But it’s not going to be easy; a mysterious figure (Scott Glenn) arrives in town, intent on stopping the thing in the Keep. He also takes up with Kuzar’s daughter (Alberta Watson), which complicates things when it comes time for the final showdown.

Writer-director Michael Mann had a fascinating feature-film debut with Thief, which played for a couple of weeks in 1981 and then stole away into the night. It was heavily cryptic and very high-tech, but it got under your skin in a weird way.

The Keep is also tersely written and enigmatically played, and Mann’s visual ingenuity is fun to watch. He likes to fill his frames with smoke and shadow and diffused light.

The only problem is, the story isn’t really propelled by all this stylization, it’s just decorated by it. I’m not knocking Mann for being ambitious, but there really isn’t enough meat to this tale to justify the pyrotechnics.

One aspect of Mann’s visual conception that is completely successful is the set design—the set for the castle is superb, with its huge stone front and catacomb-like hallways. Mann gets some spooky effects just by looking at the building itself.

And the monster is pretty neat. He’s about 8-feet tall, shaped like a man, with glowing red eyes and mouth. His voice sounds a bit like Kirk Douglas crossed with Debra Winger. As if that weren’t enough, sometimes he walks around without any skin on. But he can get away with it—this monster’s home is his castle.

Give Mann and his monster an A for effort, and keep your eye on this director. Someday he’s going to make a movie as solid as the fortress in The Keep—but slightly more inviting, perhaps.

First published in the Herald, December 1983

Well I hope Michael Mann found this encouragement useful! He’s done just fine, to the extent that he has apparently disowned The Keep and doesn’t want people to see it. But I really want to see it again, so something’s going to have to give. I left Tangerine Dream’s score out of this review, which probably reflected my musical tastes (but I do approve of them as soundtrack generators).