The name Uwe Boll is synonymous with absolute schlock in the minds of many film fans. Boll became a household name in 2003 with the first of many terrible film adaptations of popular video game franchises. I have managed to avoid the majority of his filmography, but I did take advantage of a free ticket to see "In the Name of the King." It was laughably bad, but I had to give Boll credit for having at least minimal competency behind the camera. When I saw that Boll had decided to make a serious film, about a subject often glossed over by Hollywood, I was absolutely interested.
"1968 Tunnel Rats" (shortened to simply "Tunnel Rats" on the DVD case) takes place during the Vietnam War, but is not your standard jungle warfare film. Boll has decided to focus his eye on the men responsible for searching the vast tunnel system built by the Vietcong, specifically the Cû Chi network. Just thinking about the task facing these men sends chills up my spine. If there is one thing Boll managed to successfully capture on camera, it is the claustrophobic nature of these tunnels and the uncertainty around every narrow twist and turn. Unfortunately, the impressive re-creation of these tunnels and time spent inside them by the cast is the only thing remotely successful about "Tunnel Rats."
Boll wastes no time attempting to build the impression that the viewer is embarking on an epic experience. The opening ten minutes are filled with sweeping shots above and through the jungle. Then, we are treated to our cast of characters, among who is the sole, moderately recognizable name, Michael Paré. Almost immediately, the clichés begin to roll in fast and furious. The first third of the movie's run time is spent in exposition mode; we learn the expected: one solider misses his mother, another has a girl back home, someone wants to open a restaurant when they return, their leader is a hardened career man, you get the idea. There are a lot of dead moments when the camera lingers on faces, which, in a way is more bearable than much of the dialogue.
My initial intention was to really tear into Boll and co-writer Bryan Knight for a script full of dialogue that is upstaged by Max Fischer's play, Heaven and Hell in "Rushmore." I was astonished to learn on the bonus features, both from Boll himself and some of the actors that the script was entirely improvised. The basic story was sketched out, but the actors developed their own characters and wrote their own dialogue. It explains a lot, and I have to cut the production some slack for a creative choice that is either incredibly gutsy or incredibly lazy.
"Tunnel Rats" is decently watchable until around the halfway mark and then things get weird. The movie shifts from a serious war thriller, to a Rambo-lite action film. It's worth mentioning the movie is incredibly gory; I was ok with that until it became flat out exploitation. There are numerous headshots, rains of blood, and a bona fide homage to Stallone's iconic hero as a wounded soldier defends himself, one-handed with an M60. Its as if Boll reached a point where he couldn't contain himself any longer and had to push it over-the-top; unfortunately by doing so, he's spit in the face of every man who served in one of these platoons.
The remainder of the film is a chore and the tone shifts back and forth from stark realism to exploitation, ultimately concluding with a scene so heavy handed and preachy, it makes the Alan Alda soapbox years on M*A*S*H look restrained.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is an above average presentation. The opening scenes show some minor print damage, and suffer from the same soft look that the rest of the film features. There's not a lot of detail to things and the scenes in the tunnels, while understandably dark, are at times incomprehensible. Color reproduction fairs much better, despite the limited color palette.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital English audio is distortion free, but lacks the goods expected from a war film, in fact the entire sound mix feels off at times with some very noticeable ADR. There is a 2.0 English track available as well.
"Tunnel Rats" features a feature-length commentary track by Uwe Boll and the director of photography. He explains his filming process and shares numerous anecdotes, but at times seems hampered by the fact English is not his primary language. "Behind the Scenes" is a ten-minute promotional style video that interviews Boll and some cast members, but ultimately says nothing. The most useful feature for someone trying to understand the methods behind Boll's madness is the 14-minute interview with him. Here, Boll talks about the improvised dialogue and his shift towards other dramatic films, but most revealing is his research into making "Tunnel Rats," which sounds to have been nothing more than reading a few books about the Cû Chi tunnels. His comments are incredibly pompous and insulting (he laughingly spoils the ending of the movie "Blood Diamond" when asked about the location of filming), especially after viewing the film. He claims the events are based on real-events, but no real names are used. I have no doubt much of what the viewer witnesses regarding the soldiers in the tunnels is based on real accounts, but the over-the-top jungle battle reeked of Hollywood influence.
The most horrifying aspect of the interview is learning that Boll plans to do at least two more dramas, based on real-events, one about Darfur and one about an incident in a prison regarding rape and torture. Boll explains that the improvised dialogue approach will be utilized in these films as well. I shudder to think of the end result if "Tunnel Rats" is any indication of how he handles real-life.
"Tunnel Rats" is Uwe Boll's best film to date. I give him credit for breaking free from a string of video game adaptations and trying something serious. I have no doubt with a proper script and cast, he's capable of making a movie that people would be willing to see. Unfortunately, "Tunnel Rats" is held back by a lack of cohesive story and the eventual descent into exploitation. If nothing else, I hope the movie inspires someone else out there to make a movie about the same events, but give them men who lived and died through these experiences the respect they deserve. Skip It.