Casualties of War

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"Pardon me sir, what's your point, sir? "

Sept 29th, 2011

What can be said about a movie that is considered a classic? A film with multiple positive reviews and award nominations, directed by Brian De Palma (a favourite director of mine), starring Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn, set during the Vietnam War and based on a true story. When it comes to films with this type of history it can be hard to review them as they carry with them a large fan base and an expected reactions. I don't wish to be controversial but peer pressure has never swayed me from an opinion. I dislike this movie and fail to understand why it reaps so much praise.

For those who are not as familiar with the film as those in my circles here's a brief rundown. Max Eriksson (Michael J. Fox), a Vietnam veteran experiences a flashback to his days of service. A small squad have their leave cancelled to investigate a village suspected of being involved with the Viet Cong. The frustrated soldiers lead by Sergeant Tony Meserve (Sean Penn) take it upon themselves to kidnap and abuse a young girl from the village. What follows is Max Eriksson's conflict between what is right and wrong and what is good for his country.

Before I get into why I disliked this film let's get the controversial subject matter out of the way first. While the content is harrowing (more so due to the real world events) I don't shy away from thought provoking content. Actually I prefer a movie which leaves me with moral dilemmas and subjects that stay with me long after the credits. It gives me something to think about and discuss in conversation. I'm telling you this as I don't want my perspective of the film judged on feeling uncomfortable during the movie. I quite like tom watch this type of material (that sounded a little creepy I'm neither a Sadist of Masochist).

I can really enjoy a Vietnam War movie far more than any other period of war. The reason being is that its absolute senselessness really defines the horror of war more than any flick set during either world war. I believe this because while war is more often than not displayed as terrible in film it's impossible to argue against the allied forces standing up against oppression of the time. The Vietnam debacle is such a grey area that has a wealth of subject that covers the darker side of human nature.

For me Casualties of War is a shallow recreation of all the films in the genre that came before it. From lifted dialogue to repeated imagery I fail to see why I need to watch this film when there is better out there. It's not for lack of trying by the production team as you can see glimmers here and there of a good movie that just got lost somewhere.

The biggest misstep has to be the casting of Michael J Fox as a rookie cadet. While he tries his best I never truly found him all that believable and he was clearly out of his depth. Playing a lovable scamp in a comedy or romantic drama is fine but when we really look at Fox as a valid dramatic lead (no matter how much you like him) he really doesn't have the acting chops. I'm all for allowing an actor to prove that they can do more than what they have been typecast as but sometimes there are actors who are typecast for a reason. Fox's delivery is too childlike and while he is playing a 19 year old he comes of more a sulky teenager sent to his room.

If his miscasting wasn't bad enough I can't help but be constantly disappointed with Sean Penn in this movie. When I first saw this film Sean Penn was well known but he wasn't yet the tour de force actor we know him as today. As the Sargent in charge his younger age means him doesn't have the commanding presence he really needs. While I understand he was meant to be young ( as it is a factor which leads to his deplorable actions) he then hams up his performance to comical levels that it's really hard to take his menace seriously. A similar fate befalls Don Harvey's character (Thomas E. Clark ) who plays up the sinister so much I wanted him to have a moustache that he could twirl. It's a shame too as you can see a more subtle performance in Penn that pokes its head out post rape scene by then it's too late.

The small group we focus on is rounded out with two actors making their screen debuts. John C. Reilly and John Leguizamo. Where both are now known for comedic roles they actually fair better than our main leads, but that could be attributed to their smaller screen time.

If there was one saving grace it had to be the delicate handling of the rape sequence. Many a film can misjudge this, where a horrific ordeal needs to be depicted it can come off as exploitative and nothing more than mild titillation for the audience. Thuy Thu Le really sells her character Oanh's distress and makes it an unpleasant viewing experience. I believe this is one of the reasons why this film is always praised as it's a striking moment in the film and while it is well conceived it cannot save the rest of the production.

Following on with the production the music used throughout the film is not only hockey but is too intrusive and destroys moments of contemplation and drama. The music itself seems to be a rejected score for the Karate Kid films and really has the same emotional clout. The sound levels are overbearing and actually drown out some of the dialogue, the aftermath of the rape really needed not backing. I personally feel if they had gone with no instrumental it would have had a greater impact. The score really has that TV movie feel giving you cue how to feel emotionally it amateurish and ruins the better scenes.

The pacing is a little sluggish (especially during the final 20minutes) and takes an age to get to events that we are well aware that are coming. It would be fine if we really had well drawn characters and conversations to match but it really comes down to school yard antics. Even without the foreknowledge of the true story the film is based on the conventions of cinema more than pre sell the viewer about the course of events (it's structured as a flashback taking away any suspense of our hero in danger).

I looked forward to watching this film when it was released and found myself disappointed. As the years pass I catch it occasionally on TV (when nothing else is on) wishing that It would get better with each viewing. I hate the fact that many people I know love this movie and yet I fail to see any redeeming features. I want to like this film, I like the actors, the director, the genre but I just can like this film.

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