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There was a period of time where every young, upcoming Hollywood star wanted to do a Vietnam flick to prove that they can do ‘serious’. Charlie Sheen got his wish in Oliver Stone’s Platoon (although that did not exactly secure his position as a decent actor), Cruise showed some early signs of his true worth in Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July and here we get the least likely candidate going to war—Michael J. Fox—in Brian De Palma’s take on Vietnam, Casualties of War. So, was he able to shirk his Back to the Future and Teen-wolf upbringing?

Casualties of War

Movie


After joining a new unit, it is not long before Private Eriksson finds his life in danger and needs the help of gung-ho Sergeant Meserve to get him out of trouble. Owing him his life, there is a certain amount of respect and admiration that he holds for this aggressive young Sergeant. But what happens on their next assignment out fractures his beliefs not only in the Sarge but also in the very Army itself. It was supposed to be a routine recon mission but, in order to alleviate the tedium of the long trek, Sarge proposes that they take a girl along with them for ‘entertainment’. The unit laughingly go along with it, not really knowing whether or not their leader’s ludicrous proposal is serious, nor having any concept of the gravity of the situation that they are about the get themselves into.

When they raid a small village at night and pluck an innocent teenage girl right out of her family home, reality sets in, but nobody actually says anything or stands up to the Sergeant’s despicable orders. Even Eriksson, disbelieving as to the horror that is evolving right in front of his eyes, finds it hard to speak up for the young girl. He is, however, the only one of the group who is not so overwhelmed by the Sergeant’s aggressive authority as to go along with the whole thing. Though initially he just tries to avoid being involved, eventually, after watching his fellow soldiers tear the heart and soul out of this young girl, he forms the strength to stand up to the others. But will it be too little, too late, and will he see this through right to the end?

Casualties of War
Casualties of War is a harrowing, often distasteful look at the Vietnam War and the monsters that it could make out of the very men that fought in it. Sean Penn heads up these monsters, once again proving how much he can embrace any role he takes on, by playing the immoral team leader, Sarge. Penn’s young here, and I never really appreciated his early work—much preferring his later efforts like 21 Grams and Mystic River—but this is probably an exception. Here he manages to really get into the horrendous character, showing you how his ‘do whatever it takes’ attitude is not only what makes him a vile animal, but also actually what probably kept him alive out in the hell that was Vietnam. You never feel sympathy for him or the actions he takes, but you can certainly see what made him the way he is.

The flipside of this ostensible villain is the would-be hero of the piece, Michael J. Fox’s relatively green recruit, whose initial standing as a horrified bystander eventually develops and prompts him to take action, even if it is all-but too late. I’d have never figured Fox for a role like this—he has always been typecast in frivolous teen roles, like Back to the Future, largely hampered by his eternally youthful look—but he carries this more meaty part off well. It helps no end that the material is so serious and often depressing that it simply leaves no room for you to quibble over his role in the production. In some ways, it is a shame that his more ‘serious’ movie career never really got off the ground, but this is certainly a testament to his true acting worth.

Aside from these two pivotal characters, there are plenty of other recognisable faces filling out the smaller roles, with John C. Reilly ( Magnolia), Don Harvey ( The Thin Red Line) and a young John Leguizamo (who also worked with De Palma on the outstanding Pacino gangster flick Carlito’s Way) filling out some of the other complicit unit under the Sarge’s command, and cameos from a young Ving Rhames ( Pulp Fiction) and stalwart ex-Army Captain Dale Dye, who has played the same military role in everything from Platoon to Under Siege.

Casualties of War
Marking Brian De Palma’s only foray into the war movie genre, Casualties of War presents a very specific take on Vietnam, a single horrible shard exposing the extremes of hell that could be encountered out there. Neither as ethereal as the magnificent Apocalypse Now, nor as ‘general’ as the powerful Platoon, Casualties of War is certainly no less engaging or moving, and is given considerably more weight by the fact that it is based on real life events. De Palma captures the brutality of the battles, the shattered landscapes and the much more intimate horrors all with the kind of skill that we expect from him, using his trademark angles appropriately without ever making the production seem over-stylised. That does not mean that it is a perfect work—the convoluted bookends offer an impossibly clichéd resolution for an otherwise harrowing tale—but it is still a movie well worth embracing, if you can stomach it.

This is the new ‘director’s cut’ release of Casualties of War, which does not mean a great deal since fans of the movie will probably already know most of the extra sequences from the deleted scenes on the previous release. For newcomers, or those who have only seen the original cut on TV or in the cinemas, the extra bits are nothing amazing but nicely fill out some of the plot, offering more of the original interrogation sequence with Eriksson, as well as plenty more courtroom stuff. De Palma himself oversaw and approved this new cut, making some slight changes to the visual colour tones in some sequences and reinstating scenes which were previously only found in black and white, but not wildly improving a movie that was already pretty amazing. Although double-dips that merely involve re-inserting deleted scenes are becoming more and more common, if you don’t already have a copy of Casualties of War then this is probably the cut to own.

Casualties of War

Video


Casualties of War comes presented in a polished 2.40:1 aspect ratio anamorphically enhanced widescreen transfer. De Palma loves his broad scope, and this is no exception, and even though it is over ten years old, the picture quality on this new edition is simply excellent. Detail is fabulous throughout, with negligible edge enhancement, a little softness and grain, but only during certain scenes (like the night distance shots). All of De Palma’s trademark shots (the ones where people are in focus both in the foreground and background) look as clear as if they had been filmed this year and the transfer itself exhibits no signs of print damage whatsoever.

Audio


The main track is a Dolby Digital 5.1 effort that presents the dialogue clearly from the frontal array but really showcases the excellent score across the surrounds. Reminiscent of the famous Deer Hunter theme, Casualties has its own haunting theme running throughout, which really evokes a sense of pain and desperation during some of the more tortuous sequences. The effects are particularly explosive for the first quarter of the movie, with plenty of ambushes, lots of mortar fire and a fair amount to give the surrounds something to play with (including a little bass). As the movie progresses, you get more of a jungle-vibe, with the speakers constantly alive to the sounds of the hell in ‘Nam.

Casualties of War

Extras


The first major extra is a twenty-minute interview with Michael J. Fox, where he discusses how he got involved in the production. He talks about how he wanted to take on a more serious role after working extensively in comedies (like Family Ties) and how he liked the moral implications of the script. We get snippets from the original script, behind the scenes stills from the production and lots of background into the actors that comprised the cast. Fox is quite an interesting host, and would have done well on a commentary (which is effectively what he does over many of the photos and much of the footage), discussing the locations, the jungle set, the training they underwent and the whole experience. This is well worth a look.

‘The Making of Casualties of War’ is a thirty-minute documentary with Brian De Palma in interview discussing how he escaped Vietnam for moral reasons, came across the news report of the true story and the book based on it, and then put together a cast to make the film about it. On the back of the success of not only De Palma’s other work, but also the other Vietnam movies in the same period, he managed to get the project green-lit and we hear from other members of the crew about how the production came to life. They discuss Penn, Fox and all of the rest of the major characters, filming in the jungle, creating such a controversial piece and the aftermath of its release. There are a few too many clips from the movie itself, but again we get plenty of behind the scenes stills to pad out the featurette. Some of the material was already covered in Fox’s interview, but this is still a comprehensive and interesting offering.

There are also trailers for Tears of the Sun (which also plays on disc start-up), the solid Bruce Willis military actioner, and the decent Ridley Scott war movie Black Hawk Down, which is due for another DVD release soon (do I smell a quadruple-dip?).
 
Casualties of War

Overall


Casualties of War is a harrowing look at one particular real-life incident during the horror that was Vietnam. With a career-high performance from Michael J. Fox and solid support from the likes of Sean Penn, all under the masterful guiding hand of premiere auteur Brian De Palma, the end result is a movie that is simply not to be missed. The video and audio presentation for this release are solid and, although the extras are much the same as the previous release, the new cut probably makes this the superior edition to own. Perhaps not worth a double-dip, it is definitely the edition that newcomers should pick up.


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