The genre of the war movie is a tired one. With the exception of "Saving Private Ryan," a truly great WWII film, there hasn't been a war movie in the last decade that has lived up to the realism and boldness of classics like "Platoon" and "Full Metal Jacket" of the 80s and the introspective anti-war themes of "Apocalypse Now" and "The Dear Hunter." The art of making an original and provocative film about war appeared to be dying and the Vietnam theme seemed to have run its course. Which makes it all the more unbelievable that Joel Schumacher, who I would have a called a hack filmmaker just one year ago, has achieved something so rich and captivating.
His film is "Tigerland" (IMDb listing). It is a great war film, not quite on the level of the films mentioned above but I believe that receiving such praise was never Schumacher's intention. If you're familiar with his work, then you know why I would call him a hack. He is responsible for such heavy-handed, big studio garbage as "Batman and Robin" and "A Time to Kill." Schumacher, however, has directed a few nearly excellent films that essentially fall apart. "The Lost Boys," one of the few "80s" movies that's still cool, was a stylish thriller that lost its originality by the conclusion of the film. "Flatliners," "Falling Down" and "8 MM" are other films that show promise but are ultimately overshadowed by serious flaws.
Schumacher, thankfully, went through a stunning metamorphosis with "Tigerland," by far his best film. The movie takes place in 1971, when violence is escalating in Vietnam but the war is essentially coming to an end in America. At a military base in Louisiana, the audience meets two young soldiers-in-training who drive the filmJim Paxton (Matthew Davis), the narrator, an idealistic and sturdy team player from the All-American mold; and Roland Bozz (Colin Farrell), a charming and rebellious individual who is pure anti-establishment.
Bozz is the protagonist of the film. He has no interest in the army or killing and seems to live for defying his superiors. Yet his superiors and his fellow draftees slowly recognize that Bozz is a born leader with the potential to be a great solider. He's quickly known for his witty confidence and his ability to maneuver around order and Army regulations. On several occasions, he gets some of his platoon mates discharged with clever tactics. One particularly riveting scene takes place when an underage and badly misplaced recruit who has just been beaten severely by a drill sergeant reaches out for help to Bozz, who simply can't turn him away.
Bozz wants to desert the Army and take off to Mexico before they head to Vietnam, but Paxton and other recruits try to convince him to stay and be the leader they so desperately need; they're heading to Tigerland soon and the platoon will be lost without him. Tigerland (apparently a real place) is an Army training group deep in the Louisiana wilderness designed to simulate the jungle battlefields of Vietnam and is the last stop before heading overseas for the real thing.
This is where the idea of a Vietnam movie not actually taking place in Vietnam becomes a truly effective story-telling method. The Army is subjecting its recruits to the horrors of Vietnamlive ammunition, repeated beatings, physical and psychological torturein the safety of its own home simply as a way to protect them during the war. It becomes the equivalent of self-mutilation, as the audience quickly realizes how dangerous the realism in Tigerland becomes. There is a chilling sequence when the men in Bozz's platoon are commissioned to act as Vietnamese people in a simulated village where a rival platoon is searching for enemy forces. At Tigerland, we begin to see a massive division between the mindsets of the soldiers and their country's military and how America has unconsciously turned on itself.
In many ways, Bozz and Paxton also represent two sides of America's psyche during the war, perhaps even perspectives from different time periods. Early in the war, patriotic war-heroes-to-be like Paxton were in abundance. Now, in 1971, its men like Bozz who are commondisillusioned youths who believe another life lost in the war won't make a difference. Unlike Paxton and most others, Bozz does see how his country is warring with itself. How can the Army succeed if it can't get born leaders like Bozz to serve their country? The question part of the film's message, reflecting a sad period of division in America between young and old, authority and individuality.
Screenwriters Michael McGruther and Ross Klaven deserve credit for giving an old anti-war theme a new spin and for giving the audience a character-driven script that isn't often seen in movies today. The film is full of great acting, too, by complete or virtual unknown actors. Davis is excellent, providing understated compassion and rectitude as the film's narrator. Clifton Collins Jr., who was gripping as a brooding punk in "187," is superb again here as a draftee who so badly wants to impress and earn respect that it's tearing him up. Cole Hauser also gives a strong turn as a young soldier who returns from Vietnam to teach recruits the horrors of the war at Tigerland.
The film, however, belongs to Farrell and Schumacher. Much had been made of Farrell's performance in "Tigerland," and rightfully so. He delivers infectious charisma with ease in what is likely the performance all his others will be measured against. As the intriguing and cryptic Bozz, Farrell is able to balance an anti-hero so likeable yet so maddeningly defiant.
Schumacher did what few directors would dare to do; he stripped himself bare of the props and tricks that make many a career in Hollywood, and for that alone he should be commended. Schumacher shot the film in less than a month with 16mm film, handheld cameras and no artificial lighting, let alone special effects; his shadowy and shaky approach, similar to Steven Soderbergh's style, gives the setting its authenticity. He also brings brilliant performances out of inexperienced actors, and gives the audience a subtle but involving movie that never goes for a big Hollywood scene and never reaches too far.
The result of Schumacher's transformation as a filmmaker is a magnificently crafted movie that is a splendid return to basics in the art of movie-making. It's like watching a musician throw out the amplifiers and other artificial sound toys, turn off the light show and simply sit on stage to strum an acoustic guitar for an intimate, graceful performance. In short, it's a joy to watch.
As the film ended, I kept waiting for a giant error, a monumental misstep common of Schumacher's films that would taint my praise of "Tigerland." But it never came. Instead, Schumacher gave a surprisingly clever and suspenseful climax followed by a quiet and poignant ending that exceeded any expectation I had for the film. I don't know how Schumacher changed himself professionally for this film, but he and "Tigerland" are worthy of praise. I can only hope the rest of Hollywood follows the example.
Filmfodder Grade: A