Saturday, May 29, 2010

New on Blu: "Kelly's Heroes/Where Eagles Dare"

When Quentin Tarantino released Inglourious Basterds last year, much was made of his desire to make it fit within a very specific subgenre: the “World War II guys on a mission” movie. It sounds like a strangely esoteric classification, but there were actually quite a number of these films, most of them released on the heels of the phenomenal success of The Dirty Dozen, the standard bearer of the bunch (though it was preceded by The Great Escape, The Guns of Navarone, and others). The late 1960s and 1970s saw such similarly-minded films as The Bridge at Remagen, The Eagle Has Landed, The Inglorious Bastards (the Italian film from which QT “borrowed” his title), and the Clint Eastwood films Kelly’s Heroes and Where Eagles Dare, collected in a new Blu-ray double feature.

The two films share a star, a setting, a story type, a director (Brian G. Hutton); they even use the same title font. Kelly’s Heroes is the better-known picture today, primarily for its comic overtones—it was released in summer of 1970, just a couple of months after the surprise success of M*A*S*H, and was pitched to audiences as a cross between the standard WWII adventure yarn and the antiauthoritarian irreverence of Altman’s comedy (with that film’s star, Donald Sutherland, along for the ride). Eastwood plays the title character, a busted-down lieutenant who, while interrogating a German colonel, finds out about a treasure trove of Hitler’s gold stashed deep into France, behind enemy lines. Taking advantage of a brief bit of company R&R, Kelly puts together a motley crew of fellow soldiers to swipe the gold. There’s Big Joe (Telly Savalas), the resentful master sergeant; opportunistic hustler/supply sergeant “Crapgame” (Don Rickles); Sherman tank commander—and strangely ahead-of-his-time hippie—“Oddball” (Sutherland); and an assortment of platoon members and tank mechanics.

Kelly’s Heroes runs a rather bloated 144 minutes, though you can mostly feel it crawling in the first act; it takes too damned long to get cooking. The picture’s primary flaw, however, is that director Hutton can’t find a consistent tone and sustain it—the serious action and plotting scenes coexist uneasily with the comic ones, leaving the funny stuff to feel like disconnected “comic relief.” Mixing comedy and action is harder than it looks, and Hutton’s occasional attempts to do so (like the attack on a German camp underscored by Oddball’s gang listening to a Hank Williams Jr. song) are too lead-footed to play.

Frankly, the film works best as a straight-forward military adventure, as in the tense minefield scene, or the heist sequence, which is well-constructed and tightly shot. It does conclude with a nice inside joke; as Eastwood goes to face down the German soldier in a tank, Lalo Schifrin’s score kicks up a cue that’s a dead ringer for Morricone (Savalas and Sutherland join Eastwood shortly, apparently filling the roles of the bad and the ugly). That moment almost makes up for the multiple uses of “Burning Bridges,” an anachronistic up-with-people number sung by “The Mike Curb Congregation”.

Speaking of anachronistic, what are we to make of Sutherland’s hippie soldier turn? It’s a clear pander to the lucrative “youth market,” but Sutherland managed to play a modern-thinking character in M*A*S*H without resorting to literally sporting long hair and a beard and talking like Dennis Hopper; worse than that, by the end of the picture the sniggering self-indulgence of the performance has made him more irritating than amusing. Savalas and Rickles come off best in the cast—the former finding some nuance in his no-nonsense character, the latter expectedly funny while still restrained and in-character. Caroll O’Connor, a year away from Archie Bunker, doesn’t get much to do, while Eastwood ends up playing the straight man, and consequently kind of disappears. What’s more, we never really get to know anyone we didn’t know beforehand; the platoon all blends together, in spite of the presence of a few recognizable faces (including Harry Dean Stanton, billed only as “Dean Stanton,” confirming that he has always looked old, even when he was young).

Kelly’s Heroes comes to a satisfying conclusion (there is one truly perfect smash cut), but it is a mostly uneven film, struggling mightily to reconcile its old-fashioned storytelling with the more modern sensibilities that were creeping into contemporary cinema. Where Eagles Dare, which director Hutton and star Eastwood made two years previous, isn’t burdened with the chore of hipness—it’s straightforward yarn, and a pretty good one. Hutton’s pacing remains a bit stoic and staid, but it’s a smoother fit with this more straight-faced story.

It’s a longer film than Kelly’s, but doesn’t dither around so much—Hutton gets right down to business, with one of those “righty-o, here’s the plan” scenes led by a British officer (which Tarantino was semi-parodying with the Mike Myers bit in Basterds). The mission for the team of British commandos, plus a U.S. Army Ranger (Eastwood), is to penetrate a fortress high in the Alps to retrieve an important brigadier general who has been captured by German forces. But something else is amiss; members of the team start turning up dead, and we begin to suspect that the leader of the mission, Major John Smith (Richard Burton), may be up to more than he’s telling.

There’s only one major prolem with the film, though it is a whopper. This is one of those movies where everyone speaks English, though the Germans speak English with a German accent. Trouble is, when the British-American team infiltrates the fortress, wearing German uniforms and masquerading as German officers, not only do they not speak German, they… still speak with their English and American accents. Not to sound too literal, but isn’t that a bit of a giveaway?

No matter. Again, not much of Clint’s personality comes through here—he’s fairly bland, allowing Burton and his crisp, engrossing professionalism to take over the movie. That holds particularly true in the lengthy centerpiece scene, in which the two men take over the German interrogation of the general; Burton flips the scene’s script several times, shifting allegiances and purposes, the character improvising brilliantly. Poor Clint, on the other hand, suffers the ultimate indignity of getting beat up by a couple of wussy Brits, leaving him passed out while Burton gets the picture’s best action sequence—a daring, white-knuckle fight atop an escaping cable car. The writing by Alistair MacLean is sharp and twisty, dense but not confusing. As with Kelly’s Heroes, Where Eagles Dare pulls itself together best in its third act, with the thrilling escape sequence—this is where Hutton is doing his best work, building his action beats in a brisk, workmanlike fashion.

Neither Kelly’s Heroes nor Where Eagles Dare represents the best of this very specific type of WWII movie, nor a full realization of Eastwood’s particular talents. But both films (particularly the latter) are pretty decent popcorn entertainments—nothing more, nothing less.

Warner's "Action Double Feature" Blu-ray of "Kelly's Heroes" and "Where Eagles Dare" streets on Tuesday, June 1st. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Today's New in Theaters- 5/27/10

With one notable (and limited) exception, Jesus Christ is this a miserable week for new movies.

Sex and the City 2: There is literally no movie this summer that I am less likely to see. The entire franchise trades on tired stereotypes, the trailers are wretch-inducing ("We're not in Kansas anymore"? Seriously? In a trailer? IN 2010?!?), and I never liked the series, not even a little bit; Chuck Klosterman summed up the show better than I ever could when he wrote, "Every time I tried (to watch it), all I saw were four peculiar-looking women pretending to talk like gay guys." I remembered that line when I read Lindy West's review in The Stranger, in which she noted that it's 146 minute (!) running time was "an entirely inappropriate length for what is essentially a home video of gay men playing with giant Barbie dolls." That's one of many quotable lines in that lovely piece of disgusted writing (okay, here's another: "SATC2 takes everything that I hold dear as a woman and as a human—working hard, contributing to society, not being an entitled cunt like it's my job—and rapes it to death with a stiletto that costs more than my car"). Not that's there's any shortage of terrible reviews to draw from-- I particularly recommend Ebert's ("These people make my skin crawl") and Orndorf's ("an appallingly xenophobic drag show").

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time: It's almost comical, how little interest I've managed to muster up in this movie. It's a based on a video game, right? Or a Disney ride? That's literally all I know about the film. Oh, and Jake Gylenhaal plays Fabio in it, or something.

Survival of the Dead: Romero's still making these, is he? All righty then.

Micmacs: Here's the one to go see this weekend--if you can find it. But it's a real treat, a delightful little fun house of a movie and rich comic valentine to old mysteries, modern action movies, and the kings of silent comedy. A welcome and wonderful return to form by Amelie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

In Theaters: "Micmacs"

Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Micmacs is a delightful little fun house of a movie, and a welcome return to form for the playful French filmmaker, who followed up the internationally beloved Amelie with the well-made but underwhelming (and somewhat downbeat) A Very Long Engagement five years back. It’s an utterly charming picture that takes a dark tale and puts a whiz-bang spin on it.

The opening scenes are played almost entirely wordless—the scene is set with images and sounds (a gasp, a cry, an explosion), but no dialogue. We begin in 1979, as the father of young Bazil is killed in the Western Sahara by a land mine. The heartbroken boy is shipped off to private school, and trouble spirals from there. Flash forward to thirty or so years later, where the adult Bazil (played by French comic superstar Dany Boon) is nearly killed by a stray bullet in a freakish accident outside of the video store where he works. We get a sense of the movie’s sense of humor with the operating room scene that follows; the doctor explains to his colleagues that removing the bullet from Bazil’s brain could leave him a vegetable, but if it stays in, he could die at any moment, so he’s not sure what call to make. “Anybody have a coin?” he asks. “Heads!” comes the reply. “Okay, leave it in,” the doctor shrugs.

When Bazil gets out of the hospital, though, he finds that he’s been evicted from his apartment and replaced at his old job. Newly homeless, he tries his hand at first stealing and then, finding he hasn’t the stomach for it, begging and performing. He eventually falls in with a group of wayward artists, right around the same time that he discovers the headquarters (directly across the street from each other) of the weapons makers that manufactured the bomb that killed his father, and the bullet that’s in his brain. Bazil formulates a plan to take them both down.

Micmacs is, to date, Jeunet’s most explicit valentine to the cinema—not just the old Warner Brothers pictures (which it quotes, in the opening and title sequence) or modern action movies (which it lovingly satirizes), but the films of Chaplin, Keaton, and the great silent clowns. In the first act, as we watch clever Bazil try to make his way in the big bad city, battling indifference and rotten luck, we can’t help but think of Chaplin’s Little Fellow—and indeed, Jeunet has Bazil play these scenes almost entirely in pantomime. Later scenes—the bit with a large crane magnet, the elegantly constructed airport sequence, or the theft of the suitcases—unwind with the Swiss-watch precision of a Keaton sequence (and it’s surely no coincidence that we have a supporting character named “Buster”). The piano-heavy score even sounds, in spots, like silent movie accompaniment. But the entire film has a go-for-broke sense of humor; it’s full of marvelous sight gags, like the business with the dog and the storm drain, or the moment of Bazil’s big discovery, in which the score swells and camera booms up to reveal an orchestra playing on the steps behind him (they then disappear with a slap to his forehead).

The picture is full of clever visual and narrative flourishes—touches of animation, flights of fancy, endlessly inventive photography, frames within the frame (much credit due to cinematographer Tetsuo Nagata). Some of the throwaway bits don’t quite land (the soccer fantasy scene is odd and out of place), and the goofy band of misfits threaten, particularly in their early scenes, to make the film a little too precious (I, for one, didn’t find the female contortionist to be nearly as charming as Jeunet did). It should also be noted that, for a few brief moments near the end, that the picture takes a serious turn a little to sharply, threatening to throw the whole film off its delicate balance.

It bounces back with grace, however; the third act, in which Bazil ingeniously pits the villains against each other, is wonderfully convoluted, and a giggly counterculture vibe sneaks into the proceedings (as the ragtag crew takes down the “warmongers”). Jeunet is up to something tricky here—he savvily navigates whimsical comedy with gunplay and explosions, and I can’t think of a single other filmmaker who’s done that (or, frankly, one crazy enough to try it). The results are masterful. Micmacs is a real treat.

"Micmacs" opens Friday, May 28th in limited release.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

On DVD: "Class Act"

Here’s the problem: If I had viewed Class Act cold, for the first time, on this afternoon in May 2010, I would be writing a far more negative review than you’re about to read. Because I can hem and haw all I want, but the fact of the matter is, it really isn’t a very good film; the situations are contrived, the jokes are mostly lame, and it’s basically a relic. But there’s the rub—it’s a relic from my time. I still remember going to the multiplex one warm June night in 1992 (opening weekend, no less) with a gang of friends to check it out, and coming out of it in the kind of cheery mood that you can only get from a movie that was aimed directly at you. Seeing it now, it doesn’t work particularly well as a narrative, but it probably didn’t then, either; at that time, it was just good fun. Now, it’s a freeze-frame of that fun.

The film is a vehicle for Kid ‘N Play, the likable and comparatively innocent hip-hop duo who starred in 1990’s surprise hit House Party and its first sequel the following year (they returned to the franchise in 1994). The story is seen in flashbacks, told by our hero in a jail cell to a guard who can’t care less (the device is overused in the first half, all but forgotten in the second). The script (credited to no less than five different writers) is an urban teen rewrite of The Prince and the Pauper, with “Kid” (aka Christopher Reid) as straight-A student Duncan Pinderhughes, and “Play” (Christopher Martin) playing “Blade” Brown, roughneck petty criminal. Some zany slapstick with an oddly sexed-up school secretary on the first day of school mixes up the two teenagers’ files, so Blade finds himself in the school’s pristine honors wing, while Duncan is left to mix it up with the ruffians in general population. But Blade needs good grades to keep his parole officer off his back, so he proposes to Duncan that they keep the ruse going; Duncan agrees, mainly to keep Blade from beating him up, but also because he needs a phys ed credit to get into his dream school. It doesn’t hurt that, during that first day, they’ve each met a girl who is drawn to their new persona.

So what we’ve basically got is a reverse Pygmalion—Blade the hustler teaching uptight, dorky Duncan how to act, look, and talk street. Some of this stuff is obvious and not terribly funny (the “teach the nerd how to dance” scene is as much a requirement in this genre as the “hand in your gun and badge” is in cop movies), but there are some memorable moments, including a particularly funny scene of Blade trying to teach Duncan how to talk in hip-hop slang. The writing is lackluster, but the duo commits to it, and by the end of the bit, their miscommunication skirts the inspired lunacy of an old Abbott & Costello routine.

Those little, natural gags work, and the leads are engaging. I seem to recall Reid getting more recognition as a performer at the time, but nearly two decades later, Martin is the more interesting actor; he’s charismatic, and his coming timing is razor-sharp. Reid is, admittedly, hamstrung by the cartoonish nature of his character and the film’s portrait of upper-class living, which is about as subtle as your average episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air—and sure enough, Karyn Parsons is on hand (and good) as Martin’s romantic interest. Reid works opposite Alysia Rogers, the unbearably sexy actress who did Boyz N the Hood and this film, and then disappeared completely. But as potentially pat as those romantic subplots are, they’re one of the picture’s best qualities—there’s a sweetness to them, and something real and poignant in the freedom each man finds in his new identity. Some of the supporting players are pretty good as well, like Rick Ducommun as the parole officer (“Grab a seat, punk, and turn down the volume on that jacket!”), Loretta Devine as Blade’s mom, and Doug E. Doug, who brings his offbeat comic energy to what is basically the Martin Lawrence role. On the other hand, Meschach Taylor plays Duncan’s dad as the most broad, insufferable caricature imaginable—and then there’s the Pauly Shore appearance, which stops the movie dead. It doesn’t help that he’s basically there to provide the thin excuse for a Kid ‘N Play music number (he invites them to perform at—get this—an anti-drug rally); his schtick has never been more tiresome, and when they keep cutting away to him dancing during the song, you want to find the editor and punch him in the face.

Randall Miller (whose more recent efforts have included Bottle Shock and Nobel Son) directs in a fast, aggressive style that doesn’t linger too long on the scenes that don’t work, and there are plenty. The more obvious bits and comic set pieces—like Duncan trying to pick up girls in a nightclub—mostly land with a thud, the car chase is dull, the gags in the hoary wax-museum climax are flaccid, and the extra ending is so clearly one too many, you can feel them rushing through it. The most unfortunate element is the “gay panic” subplot that Duncan’s parents are saddled with; you see, early on, they overhear something that makes them think Blade and Duncan are gay together, and the misunderstandings that follow must’ve been nice and fresh when they were on Three’s Company fifteen years earlier. The groaner payoff of that “running joke” comes in the very last scene, ending the otherwise charming flick on rather an ugly note.

My (mostly unearned) affection for Class Act kicks up during the opening credits—scored to the expected faux-New Jack music (“Work that body, work that body/Class act!”)—and colors the whole damn film, whether I like it or not. From the Chess King-style fashions to the “here’s the top five songs right now” soundtrack (which includes “U Can’t Touch This,” “The Booming System,” “Forever My Lady,” Jade’s “I Wanna Love You Down”, and Monie Love’s “It’s A Shame”) to the goofy, silly vibe of the entire enterprise, it’s an early-‘90s time capsule. For this viewer, it remains a warm and likable movie. But maybe you had to be there.

"Class Act" made its long-awaited (by some, anyway) DVD debut this month as part of the Warner Archive Collection.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Today's New DVDs- 5/25/10

Dear John: Trite and manipulative and loaded (I mean loaded) with clichés, this is yet another far-fetcher tear-jerker from the Sparks factory, directed by vanilla hack Lasse Hallström with his usual grace and subtlety (pffffft) and some distasteful 9/11 exploitation thrown in.

Stagecoach- Criterion Collection: Ford's 1939 classic is, for all intents and purposes, the archetypal western. Ford may have later explored the genre with greater sociological and psychological sophistication, and contemporaries like Hawks took the western to greater emotional and visceral heights, but it all started here. Everything that we think of when we think of the western came from Stagecoach, which distilled the genre conventions and made the damned thing respectable. Criterion's new special edition, available on both DVD and Blu, is loaded with the expected (but still impressive) array of top-notch bonus material.

The Road: Director John Hillcoat creates a dark, powerful take on Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed novel, full of strikingly dystopian imagery and ruthlessly unvarnished storytelling (“Two left… one for you, one for me”). The scenes of violence and suspense have a disturbing immediacy, while Joe Penhall’s screenplay adaptation nicely preserves McCarthy’s sparse but poetic dialogue. It’s a tough, difficult picture, but it packs a wallop.

Dr. Horrible's Singalong Blog (Blu-ray): From the Internet to DVD and now to Blu-ray, Joss Whedon's side project, originally done as a self-financed goof during the 2007-2008 writers' strike, is one of his finest works to date-- in its brief running time, it packs as much emotion and fun as the best episodes of Buffy. DVD Savant gives the Blu-ray upgrade a thumbs-up as well.

Monday, May 24, 2010

On DVD: "Dear John"

Dear John is not a movie that was made for me. It's a dewey-eyed tale of perfect young love, based on novel by Nichols Sparks, and is being marketed as a de facto sequel to The Notebook. I'm fairly confident that when the folks who made this one were contemplating their target audience, they weren't saying, "Let's make this one for the married male 34-year-old New York cynic."

So I'm not sure entirely how to respond to a film like this one. Yes, it's trite and manipulative and loaded (I mean loaded) with clichés. But does its audience care? Am I just being a party pooper by registering complaints that will fall on deaf ears? Is this the kind of film where critical response has anything whatsoever to do with how it is received? Who knows. Look, I'm not immune to the pleasures of a good weepy romance--hell, I'm one of the five people in America who saw and enjoyed Meet Joe Black. This kind of thing can be done well. But it's not done particularly well here.

John (Channing Tatum), a Special Forces soldier on leave, and Savannah (Amanda Seyfried), a college student on spring break, Meet Cute on the beach. They're attractive people--he's buff and handsome, she's got huge green eyes and a nice crooked smile--so we understand why they're drawn to each other, at least initially. But they're not terribly interesting; Jamie Linden's screenplay seems to want to get their initial conversations out of the way as quickly as possible, so as to move on to a less taxing method of storytelling (music montages, lots of music montages), but there's no particular spark or energy to their dialogue; they mostly communicate in pleasantries and insipid platitudes.

Anyway, they spend this, like, amazing two weeks together (that's what we're told, anyway, though we see most of it in the form of, um, music montages), but towards the end we have the inevitable (and frankly, contrived) conflict and predictable fall-out. But they kiss and make up before she goes back to school and he goes back overseas, and they decide to write each other all the time, to write down everything, so as to make his year-long tour more tolerable. She'll finish school, he'll finish his tour, they live happily ever after.

There's no question that Dear John is involving in spite of itself; whatever its flaws, these two are charismatic and director Lasse Hallström is pulling some pretty basic strings effectively. But the writing is just atrocious--particularly in this section, in which the film turns into, basically, a series of voice-overs, so we can put their plodding prose front and center (accompanied by such ingenious visual accompaniment as, no kidding, a sequence that illustrates how the mail system works). They write and write, and there's another music montage, and then... well, then 9/11 happens.

Hey, that caught you off guard, didn't it? You wouldn't think a lightweight romance like this one would exploit 9/11, would ya? Surprise! In all fairness, I did, in fact, see it coming--there's an awkward title card at the beginning of the film to inform us that it begins in "Spring 2001," and since he's in the army and there's absolutely no other reason for a story like this to take place nine years in the past, yeah, I kinda put it together. At any rate, John flies home on a two-day pass the weekend after, and Savannah slips under the airport security barriers so she can run to greet and kiss him, and then Hallström gives us awkward cutaways of people going through the security lines chuckling happily at young love. Um, I flew the weekend after 9/11, and that would not have been the response to someone, blonde white girl or not, breaching airport security. Savannah woulda got shot!

At any rate, apparently the 9/11 hijackers are not only responsible for thousands of deaths--they also provide a handy plot point to break up John and Savannah, since he's pressured by his unit to re-enlist and the pair drift apart (sorry if that's a spoiler, but Jesus, you didn't think the title was coincidental, did you?). It's here that Linden creates a major structural mistake, staying entirely with John for a long stretch of the third act, presuming we only care about him, since our only hint of her state of mind is a single shot of her crying at the beach. When their reunion occurs, the scene is marred by an unfortunate moment of bad acting from Seyfried (it's the only one, but it's a doozy) and some goofy business with her farm, and then we realize that they kept us in the dark about her solely to set up a lame "surprise" twist and to pile on some sickness and death.

The primary problem with Dear John is that you've seen it all so many times before--the romance between the soft guy with the dark past and the rich good girl, the kissing-in-the-rain courtship, the artfully lit tasteful sex scene, the inevitable strain of the long-distance relationship, etc. There's nothing wrong with returning to well-trod ground, but Linden's screenplay is simply tearjerker Mad-Libs, and Hallström's direction is expectedly flavorless (his filmography includes the similarly bland The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, and Casanova). There are individual moments and specific performances that work--Henry Thomas is quite good, and Richard Jenkins is wonderful, but then Richard Jenkins is always wonderful. His final scene with Tatum wants to move us, and we want it to, but Linden inexplicably recycles the same voice-over that Tatum opened the movie with, so we're not thinking about the scene, we're thinking, "Jesus, are they really gonna have him do that whole speech again?"

Again, Dear John is not pitched at me. There are, I'm sure, vast swaths of the movie-going public who like Nicholas Sparks books, and like the movies based on them, and will eat this one up with a spoon. If you like this kind of movie, well then, you're going to like this movie. That's the best I can do for you.

"Dear John" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, May 25th.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

New on Blu: "Heartbreak Ridge"

For those of us who are Clint Eastwood fans, it’s easy to let the overwhelming quality (and astonishing frequency) of his recent output cast a rose-colored glow over the entirety of his filmography. But for all of the tremendous pictures on his directorial resume—and there are plenty of them—there are some real stinkers (True Crime, The Rookie, Firefox). Add to that list 1986’s Heartbreak Ridge, a goofy, badly aged compendium of hoary war movie clichés given little life or spirit by the skilled actor/director.

Eastwood stars as Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Highway, a hard-drinking, hard-living Marine creeping up on mandatory retirement. Hoping for a change of pace and maybe (though he’d never admit it) a new start, he gets a transfer back to his old unit, where his new major (Everett McGill) puts Highway, who he sees as a “relic,” in charge of an ostensibly untrainable reconnaissance platoon. He’s also got his eye on winning back his ex-wife (Marsha Mason), who now works as a cocktail waitress for a Marine-bashing jackass (Bo Svenson) who is, of course, also her new boyfriend. Any wild guesses as to how things turn out for “Gunny Highway”? That maybe, just maybe, after some resistance, he manages to whip that band of stray Marines into fighting shape, using his own unconventional but effective methods? And that maybe he wins back that pretty ex-wife of his, thanks to his grizzled charm and willingness to change, ever so little, for her? Is the sky blue?

The Clint-against-the-world construction of James Carabastsos’s screenplay is too damned neat for us to take the conflicts seriously; it hits those marks is such an obvious fashion as to be nearly comic (one halfway expects him to also have a dog that bites him and a car that keeps breaking down). Ditto the platoon-that-couldn’t-shoot-straight quality of his men—they’re painted as such a ragtag group of misfits that the film loses its grounding in reality (no matter what a schmuck their previous sergeant may have been, are we really supposed to believe they’d have been allowed on the base with earrings and long hair?). Carabastsos also has trouble carrying his subplots through; there’s a big scene where the lumpy new major informs Highway that he’s gonna bring him down, tells him exactly how he’s gonna do it, and then doesn’t. The movie promptly forgets about his threats, save for one half-hearted bit with a subordinate trying to get Highway’s men (who are by now squarely on his team, of course) to give statements about those dern crazy methods of his.

And then there’s Mario Van Peebles, who co-stars as Corporal “Stitch” Jones, the jive-talkin’ jokester and wannabe rock star of the unit. Van Peebles has done some good work, but not here—it’s a terrible performance, though damn near any actor would sink with this film’s dated dialogue (“Word, am I fresh?”) and fanciful notions of hip music for the young people. The out-of-nowhere “rapping” and rockabilly singalongs in the barracks are bad enough, but when we see Stitch’s big number at the local dive bar, we can’t help but notice that we’re hearing his vocals loud and clear in spite of the fact that he’s not singing into a microphone.

That’s a rookie director’s mistake, and as a viewer, you’re not sure where Clint’s head was at when he made it. But what’s more befuddling is the film’s overall willingness to recycle the most overdone tropes of the war picture; he’s not even breathing new life into them, as he did with Pale Rider, his sturdy Western yarn of the previous year. In the opening credits, we see black and white documentary footage from the Korean war (where Eastwood’s character fought in the title battle), accompanied by military drums. But then, in a wincingly effective switch, the music changes to the rollicking country number “Sea of Heartbreak,” and we see images of the casualties of that war. It appears, at first, that Eastwood is setting out to futz with our war movie iconography, but there’s nothing that daring or subversive in the film itself, which slides through its training and battle scenes (the unit is activated for the invasion of Grenada) with about as much subtlety and nuance as Wayne’s The Green Berets.

What works in the movie is mostly what’s happening on the edges; Eastwood’s byplay with a friendly old barmaid (nicely played by Eileen Heckart) is entertaining, and the character arc of bookish Lieutenant Ring (Boyd Gaines) plays, thuddingly obvious though it may be. Mason is pretty good as well, bringing some spark to her scenes, though this dialogue is a long way from Neil Simon. The climactic Grenada sequence is well-executed, but pretty much rote—we don’t have much in the way of emotional investment, and certainly no doubt as to how it’s gonna turn out. Unsurprisingly, Eastwood’s quiet authority and unforced intensity as an actor holds the film together as well as it can—and Carabastsos does script him a few memorable lines (“Why don’t you just sit there and bleed a while before you taste some real pain.” “With all due respect sir, you’re beginning to bore the hell out of me”). Clint Eastwood is as fun to watch as ever, and as a fan, I’ll see just about anything he does. But with its all-too-predictable plot turns, strained dialogue, and stacked-deck storytelling, Heartbreak Ridge puts that personal rule to the test.

"Heartbreak Ridge" is available now on DVD. It makes its Blu-ray debut on June 1st. For full A/V and bonus details, read this review on DVD Talk.