Dogfight is one of the most overlooked, unsung films of the 1990's and easily one of the best films from 1991.
Directed by Nancy Savoca the film is about the petty games people play and the way that ultimately they are innocuous and often pail in comparison with major events in history. In this case the Vietnam War.
River Phoenix plays Cpl. Eddie Birdlace who along with his four Marine buddies (who call themselves the Four B's) arrive in San Francisco in November of 1963. They have one night before they ship out to Vietnam so they decide to stage a nasty little game called 'dogfight' in which they find the most homely, ugly woman and bring them to a bar where they will be judged in their efforts by a group of other soldiers.
Eddie finds a wild haired slightly overweight girl named Rose played by the always interesting looking Lili Taylor. Eddie ropes her in pretty easy but then decides she may not be ugly enough so he tries to dissuade her. She eventually figures out the game and runs away in tears but not before ripping into Eddie and his buddies. Eddie – who's pretty drunk and feeling guilty – decides to find Rose and apologize in his own inimitably coarse manner.
Dogfight is somewhat painful to watch when the guys are picking up the less than savory women. In fact, it makes you wonder what actress would put themselves in a movie to be unattractive. But it's a testament to director Nancy Savoca that she never buckles under to the stereotypical Hollywood unattractive-girl genre. You know the kind; the woman seems unattractive until the glasses come off and the hair comes down. In this case Lili Taylor plays the homely part as honestly and down-to-earth as you can. And she does become more attractive as the film wears on due partly to the combination of her endearing innocence and fervent, somewhat political personality.
River Phoneix was never better. He plays the roll as straight forward, tough and opinionated. His buddies too – who wander through the seedy sections of San Francisco – look straight out of the 50's 60's era and seem tough but underneath one can sense a vulnerability.
Besides the excellent acting the script by Bob Comfort is first rate as is the film's pacing. The film flies by in 93 minutes but more importantly it is very involving from start to finish. Nancy Savoca (who went on to direct the even lesser seen Household Saints) really showed a fine amount of talent on this film.
The film is presented in 1.85: 1 and has never looked better in home video format. The image is clean, the colors are adequately sharp and muted when they need to be. The film has a 1960's look but it's not overdone. Some of the film appears soft due to lighting but that lends it a certain feeling of nostalgia - but without being overdone.
DVD audio is 2.0 Dolby Digital surround sound which serves the musical score well, which is highlighted by folk music of the era from Joan Baez to Bob Dylan. The film is primarily driven by the dialogue and sounds fine.
The only real extra is an Audio Commentary track by Nancy Savoca and producer Richard Guay, which is very good. Nancy has a lot to say about independent filmmaking, what she learned, what she liked and how the film was changed a bit during the filming. Savoca also has good words about the late River Phoenix and makes the viewer realize what a talent he was. Other than that there are the standard trailer and filmographies.
Dogfight is an excellent film from the early 1990's about a romance that develops from a prank. River Phoenix and Lili Taylor give great performances. The DVD has mildly generous extras but more importantly this is a film that holds up well on subsequent viewings.