A behind-the-scenes vignette from this film distorts its true putrescence. As the story goes, before scenes, serious actor Sean Penn kept whispering to the out-of-place and in-over-his-head small screen star Michael J. Fox the words “television actor”, to either torment him or to rally him.
It didn’t work.
That said, while there is no question Fox is terrible, his awful performance serves the purpose of obscuring a host of other faults in this debacle.
There are, for example, hideous performances all around. Penn is execrable, delivering a turn of overacting so extreme you can almost smell it. He’s like a whirling dervish of beef, brew and Old Spice. Young John C. Reilly, John Leguizamo, and Ving Rhames are near incompetent and, like most everyone, entirely unconvincing.
But no one was given anything very good to say anyway. The script by playwright David Rabe is so overt it hits like an ABC “After School Special.” A stagey “What are we doing here, Sarge?” is pretty much every line of the picture.
Rabe served in Vietnam as a medic, which just goes to show that experience isn’t always the best progenitor of art.
Watch and see if you can hold your breakfast.
Brian DePalma’s direction is also inapt and self-indulgent. I can think of few directors less suited for the material. There is a scene where Fox’s fellow soldiers attempt to frag him by putting a grenade in the latrine where, for no reason other than an ostentatious build-up, Fox has gone to attempt to light a cigarette, interminably. Because, when you want to smoke, no place is better than a Vietnam shithouse surrounded by big pails of excrement to enjoy it. His lighter won’t work and after trying it for the umpteenth time (maybe more than 15, he really wants that smoke), he drops it, and lo and behold, the grenade is reflected off of the lighter’s stainless steel.
A Vietnam picture is no place for mimicking Hitchcock badly.
It gets worse. When Fox survives, he sees one of his tormentors, Reilly, peeking at him from behind sandbags, and all I could think of was
The film also sports terrible art direction and location scouting. Vietnam looks like Disney’s Jungle Cruise, an incredible feat given some of it was shot in Thailand. Wherever they were, the actors were serviced by some of the best spas and salons available to them. I just never knew the combat experience in Vietnam was so tidy. Fox in particular looks like he was steam cleaned in every scene. Even when he has a head wound, his bandage is so brilliant white, it almost looks like a headband missing a feather.
Finally, there is Fox’s height. In the old days, an actor’s short stature was taken into consideration. They’d put him on a hidden box, or shoot him from an angle that would favor him. Hell, in a tracking shot, they’d even build a trench for his leading lady as they ambled down the street.
Most film actors are short. 5’7″ seems to be the norm , but at 5’4″, Fox is diminutive, near tiny. Yet DePalma offered him no help. In the scene above, he grabs a taller soldier, a “cherry”, by the lapels to chew him out. He looks like a toddler clinging to an adult’s overalls, which is fitting, because for most of the film, with his childish, plaintive-comic mien, Fox presents like he lost his Mommy in aisle five of the Long Binh PX. Yes, he’s short, but that’s not the whole of it. There is not an ounce of gravitas in the actor. “Oh, Jeez” sounds perilously close to “Oh Jeez, Mallory.”
The film is based on an actual war crime. What a woeful remembrance.