Torpedoed in Tigerland

If ever there were a Vietnam movie that simply didn't need to be made, this is it

Joel Schumacher goes to Vietnam: What else does one really have to know about Tigerland?

Schumacher, for those readers fortunate enough not to have their brains cluttered with the sort of Hollywood detritus that afflicts some of us as an occupational hazard, is the auteur behind commercial confections such as St. Elmo's Fire (1985), Flatliners (1990), and Batman & Robin (1997). While this might seem damning enough, these titles are at least preferable to what he comes up with when he starts getting “serious” and/or “hard-edged”; then we have to contend with Falling Down (1993) and 8MM (1999), movies in which the usually eager-to-please director actually became offensive. (Interestingly the puffy bio in the press kit claims that Schumacher's last four films -- The Client, A Time to Kill, Batman Forever, and Batman & Robin -- “each grossed in excess of $100 million with domestic audiences alone,” thereby conveniently forgetting about his far less successful subsequent projects, 8MM and Flawless.)

Now, for whatever reason, he has chosen to make this gritty, relatively low-budget drama about young men in the final stages of basic training for infantry duty in Vietnam. The story is narrated by Jim Paxton (Matt Davis, every bit as bland as he is in the just-released Urban Legend: Final Cut), an aspiring writer from New York State. “My father,” he tells us straight off, “said the army makes all men one, but he didn't say which one” -- a sentence that sounds weighty and meaningful until you parse it. It would be nice to say this sort of gibberish is ironic, signaling to us what a fuzzy-thinking, romantic greenhorn Paxton is. Keep dreaming.

Paxton finds himself in the same platoon with Roland Bozz (Irish actor Colin Farrell), a charismatic Texas boy who just wants out of the service before it's too late. The film is essentially Paxton's hagiography of Bozz -- a hero who is either enigmatic and complicated or simply badly written, depending on how you look at it. At first Bozz is a troublemaker who seems determined to harass his superiors until they simply discharge him, out of exasperation. Instead, for reasons that are never entirely convincing -- “We know you're trying to get out, so, just to fuck with you, we're going to make you platoon leader instead!” -- he actually rises within the ranks. Along the way he manages to instruct at least two of the other trainees in how to get honorable discharges and makes sure a third never sees combat, but, contrary to his stated ambitions for much of the film, he doesn't quite get around to taking care of himself.

Most of the film is set at Fort Polk, Louisiana; the final act moves to the so-called Tigerland -- the army's domestic simulation of a Vietnamese jungle. (“It's like a war theme park,” a character says, in one of the very few amusing lines screenwriters Ross Klavan and Michael McGruther deliver.) The movie never actually makes it to Vietnam: In essence this is Half Metal Jacket.

No, wait, that's too complimentary: The total effect of Tigerland never even comes close to the first half of Full Metal Jacket, the film to which it most obviously invites comparison. Maybe it would be better to characterize this as Full Metal Jacket Lite, since it handles material similar to that Kubrick classic in ways that strip away all of the style, complexity, and subtlety, as well as most of the emotional impact.

Indeed the script is a catalogue of old, overused war-movie routines. Just moments after it surprisingly manages to present a sympathetic officer (Cole Hauser), it unsurprisingly manages to turn him into a cliché with a story of the Best Buddy Who Got Killed: “One night he and I were discussing names for the baby his wife was about to have; a minute later his brains were in my lap!” At other times it seems to give Bozz a stamp of validation by overplaying some kind of empathetic rapport with black soldiers, just so we know that he's cool. If ever there were a Vietnam movie that simply didn't need to be made, this is it. It adds nothing to the genre; nor does its emulation of Cool Hand Luke's combination of heroics and antiheroics manage a tenth of that film's effect. One might applaud Schumacher for adopting a gritty, hand-held-camera style that is more appropriate to the material than his usual gloss. But it was a pretty obvious call.

The fact is that whatever is worthwhile in Schumacher's take on army life was done long ago, and better, in Patrick Sheane Duncan's really low-budget 84 Charley MoPic (1989). If you want a gritty Vietnam-era drama -- not to mention a superior conceptual precursor to The Blair Witch Project -- stay at home and rent that one instead.

 
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