The good thing about Memorial Day this and recent years has allowed studios to trot out their catalog war titles on Blu-ray in one manner or another and it gives you a chance to revisit classics on high-definition or experience ones that may have slipped under the radar. I honestly did not give much thought or regard to Tigerland, otherwise known as the film that introduced Colin Farrell (The Recruit) to American audiences, but heard generally positive things about it. And in seeing the film for the first time, it's easy to understand why Farrell's performance impressed so many.
Set in 1971 Fort Polk, Louisiana, the soldiers are aware that at the end of basic training, they will likely go to Vietnam and that some, if not most, will die. Written by Vietnam Veteran Ross Klavan and directed by Joel Schumacher (Twelve), Farrell is Private Bozz, a soldier in and out of the stockade and military discipline and would appear to be a malcontent based on his history, though he seems to be more aware of the fate the company has than most. He strikes up a friendship with Private Paxton (Matthew Davis, The Vampire Diaries), and Bozz' perceived disruptive nature appears to be little more than common decency to others and even to a Drill Instructor. This nature ruffles the feathers of Private Wilson (Shea Whigham, Machete), who thinks Bozz is little more than a peacenik hippie who doesn't want to go to war. However the closer the company finds themselves going to Vietnam (and before that, a stage of called Tigerland where the recruits learn what fighting in Vietnam will truly be like), the rawer the emotions and friendships become.
In what might be the smartest decision the film makes, Schumacher and Klavan do not spend the time in Vietnam, but the mention of it is effective enough that the soldiers provide a convincing mix of dread or anticipation depending on the individual's perspective (think of it as a dark interpretation of Biloxi Blues). Bozz is aware that the stupid courageous and donkey strong are likely the ones that may perish first when they set boots down in the jungle, and for most of the film it's hard to avoid how convincing this is. Yet once in Tigerland (the first sign that Vietnam is inevitable for the troops), Wilson's strength despite his obliviousness may be something that Bozz needs a little bit of. He looks a little overmatched for his circumstances, which is stunning considering the first two acts of the film. Bozz frequently clashes with one of the Drill Instructors, but the Senior Instructor has been over in country and in a humanizing (yet slightly unbelievable) scene with Bozz, seemingly admits that some of the formalities during Basic Training are silly, yet past the formalities the practical nature of what is being taught will help all involved.
Farrell's willingness to show both sides of this in Bozz was a bold move for such a then-young actor and playing a southern man in Louisiana without language training, he manages to pull off the accent rather convincingly. Along with Davis and Whigham's performances, it's easy to understand why Farrell broke out as he did. Additionally, special mention should be made to Clifton Collins (Crank: High Voltage), who plays the Platoon Leader Private Miter. Having a "leadership position" in a wartime company would seem to be a foolhardy concept, yet he takes his position seriously, even as nobody takes him seriously in it. In a compelling moment of self-awareness, he talks to Bozz about how nobody seems to respect him, not just in the company but back home with his parents. Farrell may have taken the headlines coming out of the film for his work, but Collins was a close second.
The story has its moments of implausibility, yet the journey the characters take remains centered and for this former soldier, fairly relatable. In retrospect I regret not seeing Tigerland when it first came out, but getting this newfound chance, I've grown to respect and appreciate it both for the story and the performances of the young ensemble.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Tigerland is presented in an AVC-encoded 1.85:1 high-definition transfer that is admittedly a little tough to grade. Schumacher says in the commentary that the film was shot with gritty visuals in mind (hence the 16mm used for this), so not only is film grain present, it's abundant during viewing. However there are moments where you can spot DNR and edge enhancement which make viewing the image sharp when it's supposed to be rough. There might have been a new transfer struck for the Blu-ray release and while the thought is commendable, the execution is a little lacking.
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround for the film, which considering the modest production values sounds good. There are moments (such as when the company is in a trench hiding from machine gun fire, or when they are at a firing range) where gunfire sounds crisp and clean with some occasional directional effects. Dialogue is strong in the center channel and requires no adjustment, and the ambient sounds of a rainstorm are clear in all channels and make for convincing immersion. Quality listening material here.
The extras from the previous disc are here, but there are some new extras also, starting with "The Real Tigerland" (21:44), where Klavan and other Vietnam and Tigerland vets recounts their stories of going through the camp, first impressions and what they thought of the place and of Fort Polk as a whole in basic training. Old stills are edited in with film and interview footage to make it feel vintage, and the memories are intriguing and well worth the view. Next is "Joel Schumacher: Journey to Tigerland" (10:07), where the director discusses how he came to the story and what he liked about it, and shares his memories on the cast and the preparations they undertook to get into shape for the film. "Ross Klavan: Ode to Tigerland" (10:55) features the writer and former Tigerland graduate as he talked about the options that some draftees had during Vietnam, and recalls how he wrote the story that became the film. Along with all of these is a vintage featurette (4:16) in which Schumacher talks up the film, story and cast for the prospective viewer.
Schumacher's commentary for the film is engaging and informative as he talks about how he shot the film and speculates on Klavan's writing motivations, and covers the times then and now. The historical context of Tigerland and Polk are touched upon and he shares some raves on the cast for a particular scene or sequence in the film. Fans of the film will like it, but this has enough educational value for the film student you might now. From there, "Casting Session" (6:29) shows us some audition footage of Farrell broken into four sections or you can play all of it, and two TV spots and a trailer close the disc out.
Tigerland might not be on the first shelf of heralded war films (it might not be in the second or third depending on who you ask), but the performances from those who have become familiar faces are worth exploring, even as the fates they face cannot be avoided. Technically the disc is a mixed bag, but the new extras push it over the hump than a ten-year old standard definition version. Worth double-dipping for those who have it, and definitely worth seeing if you haven't.