In the latter half of the 1980s, Oliver Stone's Platoon, Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket and a spate of like-minded films exploring the Vietnam War made it inevitable that a few would slip through the proverbial cracks. Casualties of War is one such picture, a gripping morality tale that met with lackluster box-office and reviews in its 1989 release despite a marquee director in Brian De Palma and marketable stars Sean Penn and Michael J. Fox.
Based on an actual event first reported by Daniel Lang in the The New Yorker in 1969, the film is only incidentally about Vietnam. Against the backdrop of that war, De Palma and screenwriter David Rabe delve into the cyclical effect of war's inhumanity, a lawless universe in which ostensibly decent people find themselves doing the most indecent things imaginable.
In a risky career change at that time, Fox portrays Ericksson, a straight-arrow PFC newly arrived in Vietnam and placed under the tutelage of tough, hard-charging Sgt. Tony Meserve (Sean Penn). Shortly after a beloved member of their squad is ambushed by Viet Cong snipers, Meserve announces a horrific plan to Ericksson and the three other GIs under his command. They will "requisition" a peasant girl in a nearby village, Meserve explains, to force into being their sex slave.
Ericksson tells himself Meserve must be joking, but the sergeant is deadly serious. Led by Meserve's psychopathic buddy, Cpl. Clark (Don Harvey), the soldiers kidnap a teenaged Vietnamese girl (Thuy Thu Le) in the dead of night, literally tearing her away from the clutches of her sobbing mother.
The sergeant orders his men to rape the hostage. Ericksson protests and vows not to take part. Another member of the squad, PFC Diaz (John Leguizamo), is as disgusted as Ericksson, but doesn't share the man's courage to do what is right.
While this is undoubtedly harrowing stuff, the filmmakers belie an occasional lack of faith in their own material. Rabe's dialogue is far from nuanced; Ericksson is particularly saddled with some clumsy on-the-nose lines that provide needless exclamation points to the action onscreen. The movie's mawkish ending is especially unfortunate.
But Casualties of War rises above its uneven parts, a compelling story punctuated by scenes of raw, cinematic power. De Palma isn't the most cerebral filmmaker around, but he knows how to stage suspense. In Casualties of War, he toys with the audience's understanding that this world can explode into bloodshed at any second.
Penn delivers a characteristically top-notch performance. As Meserve, he is wild-eyed, unpredictable and more than a little frightening. Fox does a fine job, but he can't help but pale in comparison; it doesn't benefit him that his character remains sketchy, primarily filling the role of Voice of Morality.
On the subject of acting, Casualties of War is also worth a look for appearances from three guys who would become a few of the most consistently intriguing character actors of the 1990s: Leguizamo, John C. Reilly and Ving Rhames.
The video is a bit soft in spots, but overall of excellent quality, a visually lush presentation in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is clean and effective. There is solid use of sound separation, especially when it comes to the explosions that punctuate the movie. Audio in 5.1 is available in English and French, with 2.0 the options for Spanish and Portuguese. Subtitles are available in all four languages.
At nearly 19 minutes, Ericksson's War – A Conversation with Michael J. Fox provides recollections by the actor about the film, which Fox says remains the movie of which he is most proud. Interspersed with clips and still photos from the motion picture, Fox is refreshingly honest and earnest about why he felt it was such an important film to make.
Even better is the 30-minute featurette, The Making of Casualties of War. In expansive interviews, De Palma, co-producer Art Linson and editor Bill Pankow discuss the travails of shooting the flick in Thailand. And there are actually some interesting tidbits, such as Amy Irving's uncredited voiceover work in a key scene.
Previews include trailers for The Hunt for Eagle One, The Passenger and The Patriot – Extended Edition.
Not being exceedingly well-acquainted with the movie's theatrical version, I cannot speak to whether this extended Casualties of War version marks a significant improvement over the original.
What I can say is that the film works in spite of some heavy-handed moments. Although it does not offer tremendous new insights into war (it's hell, all right) or the Vietnam War (what were we doing there?), the movie is a stark illustration of how one of the most precious of wartime tools -- a moral compass -- is among the most difficult things to retain. It is a theme that still reverberates with relevance.