Brian de Palma is another legend in Hollywood. Going all the way back to 1960, his films have ALMOST always resonated with audiences, in one way or another. I mean really, when you can boast having the likes of Carrie (1976), The Fury (1978), Blow Out (1981), Scarface (1983), The Untouchables (1987), Carlito’s Way (1993) and Mission: Impossible (1996) (to name just some of the notables) on your filmography, you’ve clearly done something right in Tinseltown.
The man knows his shit and usually maintains a VERY distinctive visual and atmospheric style that can be traced back decades (split frames and focus, Giallo-influenced colored lighting, intense melodrama etc) and these choices have worked wonders on most of his features.
I stress ‘most’.
Casualties of War is one of his rare ones (of what I’ve seen of De Palma’s efforts) that simply doesn’t work…in my humble opinion. All great directors have misfires (Spielberg – 1941, Cameron – Piranha 2: The Spawning, Scott – G.I. Jane) and this, for me, is one of De Palma’s. Sure, he’s also the guy who directed the allegedly-epic Box Office Bomb The Bonfire of the Vanities in 1988 (which I still have yet to suffer through…some day) but for me, THIS film is a definite ‘stumble’.
For starters, when it was released in 1989, it had already been preceded by some of the best entries into the American Cinematic Period of Catharsis on The Vietnam War of the 1980’s, arguably going back to Coppola’s still amazing Apocalypse Now in 1979 or even The Boys of Company C (1978). But on top of that we had already had Platoon (1986), Hamburger Hill (1987), Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Bat 21 (1988) explode across screens. Even in 1989, Oliver Stone (Platoon) came back with another superb Vietnam film, Born of the Fourth of July. Hell, even cable TV got in the act with the surprisingly solid series Tour of Duty (1987-90). Maybe the movie-going audiences, by that time, were tired of being raked back and forth over the traumatic stain left on the American psyche from that bullshit conflict, trauma that arguably STILL resonates in the societal fabric of the US today. This can most easily be seen in the lack-lustre box office performance at the time of Casualties’ release – a $22+million budget yielding a sad $18+million take.
Thankfully for star Michael J. Fox, the blockbuster Back to the Future 2 also came out that year.
I MAY have seen this flick in its entirety WAY back in the day…but I didn’t remember it, aside from some select scenes, when I stumbled across a DVD copy for $3 at the local Value Village. I figured why not. Let’s see if what I do remember, and how I remember it, still holds up today.
Casualties of War is based on the sickening true story of a group of US soldiers on a recon mission who kidnapped a young Vietnamese woman from her village in 1966 for ‘morale’ purposes, ie she’s only there to be raped at their convenience and then finally murdered when the mission ends. That was their openly stated intent going in and they followed through. One trooper, ‘Pvt. Eriksson’ (Michael J. Fox) is shocked and repulsed by the actions of his fellow soldiers, refusing to partake and putting him at lethal odds with the psychopathic squad leader ‘Meserve’ (Sean Penn) and the other blood-thirsty members of the team when he threatens to expose their actions.
So, as is my way, last weekend I had sealed myself up with my notepad, and an ice-cold tallboy, and got scribbling as the movie told me it’s nasty little tale.
Here lie those scribbles…
–Once Upon a Time in America score? Flute. Once Upon a Time in America (1984) is one of the finest gangster films EVER made and its iconic status has, in part, to do with Ennio Morricone’s terrific music, a key part of which is a very distinct flute. I swear that some of the tunes here were a dead-ringer for that film’s musical flavor. And lo and behold…who did the music?! The Man himself – Morricone. Which now leads me to think that this renowned and celebrated composer may have actually been pulling a ‘James Horner’ on this one, ie lazily recycling previously written music from other films (seriously, go take a listen to Horner’s excellent score for Aliens (1986), then follow it up with the equally gorgeous music from Patriot Games (1992). Now tell me it’s not a Copy n Paste kinda deal on certain tracks. I dare ya). *shrugs*
–John C. Reilly? This flick has a surprisingly familiar cast and Reilly (Step Brothers) was one of the first to appear. And there in lay the first of many issues with this movie…the cast had me frequently play Spot the Famous Person as opposed to investing in the characters.
–Ving?! Yet another case of S-t-F-P! Ving Rhames (Pulp Fiction) turns up, looking all young n shit. It’s funny, as immediately following this, he went on to play another grunt stuck in the Vietnam War, in the awesome Jacob’s Ladder (1990).
–That sucks. Caught in a VC tunnel. There’s a night-time battle scene in Act One where ‘Eriksson’ (Michael J. Fox) falls into a Viet Cong tunnel and gets stuck half in/half out, dangling into the cramped passageway hidden under the jungle floor. De Palma lays the melodramatic suspense on thick here…and here is where my problems started. This was the scene for me where the stylistic trappings of De Palma’s usually intriguing visuals began to hurt the movie.
–Why was Buddy buried? VC knife guy. Part of the aforementioned stuck-in-enemy-tunnel scene is this blade-wielding cretin who we see slithering along underground, closing on Michael J. Fox’s awkwardly dangling feet like a slasher movie villain, clenching a knife. I actually LOL’d when he suddenly emerged from the earthen floor of the tunnel like the idiots in the walls at the end of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, right after several other VC trample RIGHT OVER TOP OF HIM! What the fuck was he doing buried in the floor?!! Just hanging out?! *shakes head in amusement*
–Not sure about the rousing orchestral music. Wrong tone. Again, Ennio Morricone was an amazing, almost unparalleled composer, but here, his epic compositions make the movie feel detached and manipulative in a very in-your-face kinda way.
–Misusing vernacular? “Get Some!” “Mad Minute” If there is any war in ‘modern’ history that I’ve read the most about, it’s easily the Vietnam War. Much of the detailed material has related to the experiences of the grunts on the ground and in combat. This and other, more realistic, Vietnam War films, have tuned my ear (IMO) to the Believable vs the Not Believable, in terms of dialogue (I still think Hamburger Hill, followed by Platoon, do it best). Now “Get some!” could be open to interpretation and used freely to cover many scenarios (it seemed amusingly out of place here), but the use of “Mad minute” didn’t ring true. Now, AS I UNDERSTAND IT, a ‘mad minute’ is a brief period where all soldiers in a squad or line company under attack form up on a firing line and unleash a storm of gunfire across a wide expanse, presumably across the enemy’s position and presumably for 60 or so seconds. That was NOT how it was used here.
–Penn over-the-top from the get-go Sean Penn is a pretty extreme guy, though he has mellowed with age (and become something of a humanitarian, ironically enough). But this was back in his beating-up-paps-over-his-marriage-to-Madonna days, when there was a certain volatility to his character in general. That volatility is on full display in Casualties of War and it makes the murderous character of ‘Meserve’ a borderline cartoonish Bad Guy, all snarls and bugged out eyes. And Believability takes another hit!
–Holt?! And the parade of famous faces continues! Holt McCallany (Alien 3) turns up in a scene as a ‘Lt. Kramer’. Don’t remember him turning up later on, but I could be wrong.
–Melodrama to the point of corny. No subtlety. This was a HUGE issue I had with this flick. I can’t pinpoint any one scene but the whole thing unspools feeling like a stage play of some kind, with everything dialed up for a live audience. It took away from any real investment I may have felt and cheapened the horror of the core story.
–Leguizamo?! WTF?! They just keep on coming! A young John Leguizamo (The Pest) turns up as a replacement for a well-liked radio operator in the squad who was killed by a sniper early on, fueling the squads hatred toward the Vietnamese people.
–Dumbest LRRPs ever One area that I’ve read a lot about is the US Army’s Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols; ballsy motherfuckers who operated deep behind enemy lines to gather intel, carry out ambushes and disrupt enemy supply lines, among other tasks. They were allegedly some of the most disciplined and skilled soldiers in that completely unnecessary conflict and they lived lives that defined Adventure. For some reason, in Casualties of War, our main squad, whom we NEVER see treated as LRRPs (who lived by their own unique methods in Real Life) are sent on a recon patrol into enemy territory. At one point, after they’ve kidnapped their poor victim, they hole up in an abandoned hooch in the jungle, AFTER having just traipsed across an open ridgeline, framed by the cinematically setting sun (just dumb). This struck me as highly moronic, as one thing the true LRRP’s always tried to do was AVOID chances of being detected. In and out, without the enemy ever knowing they were there, was the goal. Which is why they never patrolled on trails or used bridges for river crossings…too much chance of encountering the enemy and resulting in ‘contact’. And probably didn’t willingly hole up in man-made structures deep in enemy lands either! But apparently, that IS what this squad did, much to my surprise. Historically accurate or not…it made them look stupid.
–Every Vietnam cliché. The other ‘Nam films that I’ve already mentioned used period and setting-accurate slang and terms in their dialogue but here, it constantly felt Actors Spouting Dialogue While Playing Vietnam War Dress-Up. I wasn’t being convinced by what I was hearing and I’m not sure the actors were either. This also applied to the cardboard-cut out characterizations that we got, along with pale and forced imitations of characters and settings we’ve already seen before, just done far better. This entire movie felt ‘staged’, and the by-then cliché’d dialogue just doesn’t land for me.
–More over-cooked melodrama. Prisoner release. There’s a scene in which ‘Eriksson’ (Fox) gets the chance to free their traumatized victim and the narrative lead-up to his attempt is SO overblown, with Ennio Morricone just cranking that heart-stirring orchestral score up to 11 and cheese-balling the whole scene right out. I sat there shaking my head…again.
–Penn is hilarious! All bug-eyed and snarly. As previously mentioned, Sean Penn just chews into the character of ‘Meserve’, instantly painting the asshole as an evil psychopath from the first scene. There is no real arc for him, he doesn’t transition from Decent Guy into Maniac over the course of the story…he just is. Much like Jack Nicholson in The Shining…fucking crazy from the beginning, and therefore hard to emotionally invest in. And ‘bug-eyes and snarly’ seemed to be his ‘default’, as he does A LOT of it.
–Ha! They all woulda killed each other! Execution on the tracks scene *SPOILER* When the squad’s mission reaches it’s climax, with them overseeing an air strike on a VC supply point from an elevated train track overlooking a river, the poor girl is repeatedly stabbed by one of the piece-of-shit soldiers. In the chaotic gun-battle that ensues, the grievously wounded girl stumbles onto the tracks and manages to get between ‘Meserve’ and the rest of the retreating squad. In shorter order and with much melodrama, she’s gunned down FROM BOTH DIRECTIONS! The amount of firepower they lay into her (Penn alone is rocking the fearsome belt-fed M-60!) and the fact that she’s directly between them all had me laugh out loud again, as reality would dictate that they all deservedly shot each other to pieces in the process. Just idiotic blocking in the scene. Sorry, Mr. De Palma…but think about it, beyond the metaphoric relevance.
–Solid helicopter attack scene. Convincing. Now, NOTHING is going to beat the mind-blowing spectacle of the ‘Ride of the Valkries’ scene from Apocalypse Now, in which a squadron of attack helicopters convincingly lay waste to a heavily defended VC village…in order to go surfing (“Charlie don’t surf!”). But the short attack on the river bank / VC sampan / US Navy patrol boat here is pretty good, looking very similar to gun-cam footage of chopper attacks that actually happened during the war. The friendly-fire incident during the carnage was a nice touch too. A rare compliment for this movie.
–Dust-off? Outta the blue? Feels like scenes missing After the carnage and violence of the helicopter attack and the murder of the girl, we suddenly Cut and there’s ‘Eriksson’, being flown by med-evac chopper (known as a ‘dust off’) to a military base hospital away from the battle and, more importantly, his squad. But we never see the immediate aftermath with the squad, where ‘Eriksson’s betrayal at the hooch is concerned. Just Cut…and he’s outta there. It felt choppy and incomplete.
–Fox laying it on thick. Post booby trap scene. After a cartoonishly ‘green’ soldier is rebuffed by ‘Eriksson’ and his buddy, he runs ahead and accidently triggers a ‘toe popper’ mine (that blows his foot clean off) and sends him tumbling (off-screen) onto a collection of punji stakes at the side of the road their company of GIs is walking down, instantly ending his tour and anxieties. What follows is some seriously cheesy and melodramatic monologuing from Michael J. Fox, waxing poetic about the horrors of war and blah blah blah. It’s heavy handed and, again, tonally wrong.
–Dale Dye! Figures Dale Dye, like the immeasurable R. Lee Ermey (Full Metal Jacket) is a former US military officer / combat veteran who has transitioned over the years from Technical Advisor to full-on actor and has turned up in numerous military themed films over the years. And here was yet another one.
– Shades of The Untouchables. Stalker scene. There’s a classic scene in De Palma’s historically inaccurate but still excellent 1987 film The Untouchables in which one of Al Capone’s slippery goons stalks Sean Connery’s ‘Malone’ character from outside his house, all shown through a long and impressive PoV shot. De Palma repeats this idea in ‘Casualties’ with a sequence in which ‘Eriksson’ is stalked through the base by one of the squads more blood-thirsty members, ‘Clark’ (Don Harvey). It felt VERY familiar.
–Relentlessly negative and melodramatic. I’ve touched on the over-abundance of cheesy melodrama already but another aspect that turned me off was simply the in-your-face negativity at the core of the flick. It can be argued that this horrifying true story NEEDED to be told, as part of the US’s need to shake off the demons of the war, to be brought to light for purposes of forgiveness and enlightenment, but I ask…does it? We all know by now, and certainly by the time this came out, that the Vietnam War was a horrifying shitshow that ruined and ended thousands of lives on both sides and that American forces were not above the odd atrocity along the way. Isolating a specific incident of cruel savagery for entertainment purposes seems a little perverse in this case. Hell, De Palma could’ve just gone for the Grand Daddy of Vietnam War Crimes / Bad Taste and done a flick about the fucking My Lai massacre, in which a pair of American Army companies brutally murdered up to 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians in March 1968 in a village named My Lai in retaliation for some booby trap attacks nearby. Just awful, monstrous stuff and probably something the movie-going audiences could go without seeing. Other films, notably Apocalypse Now and Platoon have featured select scenes in which American characters violently run amok and Vietnamese civilians suffer in direct homage to THAT terrible incident. They don’t dominate the movie’s they’re in, but they certainly get the point across. This is a feature-length version of that. The poor girl spends the majority of the run-time crying and pleading as she’s mistreated and raped by most of the squad and it left me feeling dirty (as I’m sure I was meant to). Casualties of War is a thematically ugly movie, plain and simple, with questionable value as a piece of cinematic entertainment.
–Cornball ending In keeping with all the syrupy and manipulative attempts at melodrama carrying the movie along, the ending, in which Fox’s ‘Eriksson’ (after seeing justice served), has a cryptic and cathartic chat with a pretty Asian girl in a park in San Francisco (I think) after the war. As she walks away, he turns to us…and smiles grimly but with a trace of relief, before walking out of frame. ROLL CREDITS. *rolls eyes*
–Not a Vietnam classic Kinda sums things up right there.
All in all, I found Casualties of War to be a legitimate disappointment, both as a Vietnam War film, and as an entry on Brian De Palma’s extensive and impressive filmography. The over-the-top styling was a distraction, the melodrama was grating and constant, the characters all felt like caricatures, with the admittedly talented cast coming off as merely playing Vietnam War dress-up. That’s not even to mention the dehumanizing cruelty and unrelenting negativity that the entire flick used as narrative fuel and that it in no way took a break from. There is no levity here (though given the chosen subject matter, there probably shouldn’t be) and the grim, nasty tone becomes almost obnoxious after a while. Even Ennio Morricone’s score became a plodding affair and even began to annoy me at times, which is something I never thought I would say about his work. While there are a couple Positives I could toss out there (some Production Design work is solid and that helicopter attack was cool) overall, I can’t bring myself to recommend seeing Casualties of War unless A) you’re a De Palma completist or B) you’re a war movie fan with low standards. That’s really about it.
It’s just one of those ones that, despite the oodles of talent both behind the camera and in front, simply wasn’t meant to be.
If you NEVER see Casualties of War…you’re not missing anything.