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IN SHORT: An effective character driven war film. Something we "liked," from a director whose work we normally don't like. [Rated R for violence, pervasive language, a scene of strong sexuality and some drug use. 109 minutes]
Let's make a short movie list: A soldier acts nuts to try to get out of Service (M*A*S*H). A squad of soldiers bonds before during or after battle (most recently, Saving Private Ryan). A soldier demonstrates extreme heroism by taking the place of another (Hair. sort of). Now answer this question: how do you keep a war story fresh when "it's all been done"? Fairly easily, actually. Especially when you work from a script that is heavy on character dynamics and light on gimmicks or unbelievable plot twists.
From Our Honest is the Best Policy Department: we have always, for the most part, disliked Director Joel Schumacher's use of gimmicks and twists, and our dislike for his Batman films is a whole 'nother matter. We are prepared to eat crow on this one, called Tigerland. Schumacher, working from a screenplay by Ross Klavan and Michael McGruther, puts all the emphasis on performances and makes you feel as if you are experiencing the reality seen on screen. Critics just older than Cranky were speaking every drill sergeant-given command back at the screen, even as the words were coming out of the speakers. Boot camp leaves a lasting impression, I'd guess. I missed it by about six months.
Tigerland is set in September of 1971, though we actually get nowhere near Vietnam. Without getting into the politics of the time, the country is growing ever more vocal against the War, and everyone -- enlisted, draftee or lifers -- knows it. The Army regulars assigned to the Ft. Polk boot camp in Louisiana have all done stints in Nam. They all know the war is being lost. Having survived the situation, they know the true meaning of kill or be killed. The new kids in the camp have to be taught the Army way 'cuz it's the only chance they'll have to survive. The Army way emphasizes "Respect. For your Superiors. For yourselves and your unit. For the enemy." and the jump to the orders discipline that might allow these grunts to survive. When it all comes down to that final day, no one exits the camp for anyplace but Southeast Asia.
Which isn't exactly what Private Roland Bozz (Colin Farrell) of Texas has in mind. It isn't that he came in to the camp a long haired anti-war hippie pinko protester. In fact, we never do find out either way. It is obvious to the Drill Staff that the Private possesses all the skills and raw intelligence that mark him as having Potential. Not just to survive but to lead as well. Bozz makes like Tommy, a popular rock 'n' roll character of the time. He doesn't see it. He won't hear of it. He'll spend all his time in stockade for disobedience until the Army drums him out. And if the Army won't drum him out, he knows the regulations and procedures backwards and forwards and will help the other grunts get the hell out of camp. Not to Nam but to Home. Some battles are won. Some battles are lost. But the War waits patiently thousands of miles away.
Confining the action to training -- the only outsiders we see are the prostitutes working the bars surrounding the Fort -- reveals characters that individually define what war "means" to the male of the species. At least the ones in "Company A": Paxton (Matt Davis) the middle class kid who can but chooses to do his duty and enlists; Miter (Clifton Collins Jr.) the wimpy kidlet who thinks the Army will make him a Man; Wilson (Shea Whigham) the gung-ho kid who can't wait to shoot up the Enemy; or draftees like Johnson (Russell Richardson) who can't afford college and an educational deferment or Cantwell (Thomas Guiry), who is close to shell-shock from the word go. All the individual actors that fill the unit build easily recognizable and fairly detailed characters. That they survive in a palpably oppressive atmosphere and still manage to wisecrack between pounding the stuffing out of each other -- this beyond Training -- makes the film far easier to sit through than it may sound. A little humor goes a very long ways.
Tigerland, in its first half is a test of wills. The man who wants out of a System that will never allow itself to look weak enough to let him go. The man who bends the System and the System that refuses to break. And finally, to "Tigerland, the second worst place on Earth" where the conditions are as close to Viet Nam as are physically possible and the ammunition is live. Alliances and enmities forged in boot camp are pushed beyond the breaking point as Sgt. Bozz proves to be more responsible than he let on.
And giving that point away strips the story of none of its power. Indeed, with a couple of war movies under your belt, it's a logical plot device. What writers Klavan and McGruther, and director Schumacher do with it will still surprise and leave you with a very satisfying ending.
And that sentence does not mean anything close to what you think it means.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Tigerland, he would have paid...
Schumacher's timing has never been better. He shoots the film in 16mm handheld documentary style and the images subtly degrade as the story moves closer and closer to its conclusion, with colors fading away until only Army green and Human flesh are left. The back end of the film is reminiscent of the war footage seen back when Walter Cronkite was the voice of the nation, hand held and grainy, recoiling from the impact of explosions we don't see. A damn fine job all around.
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