Rating: The Good – 83.4 Genre: Thriller, Drama Duration: 95mins Director: John Flynn Stars: William Devane, Tommy Lee Jones, Linda Haynes
As good a thriller as the 70’s offered up, Rolling Thunder is damn near perfect. The ever cool William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones play two POW’s who, after returning home, find life as torturous as their imprisonment was. Things get steadily worse for the hard boiled Major Charles Rane (Devane) when his wife and son are murdered by a gang of home invaders who also take his hand. Devane gives a smouldering performance as a man who has “learned to love” torture as a means to surviving it. A young Tommy Lee Jones is sensational as the equally stoic Johnny who ultimately helps him to exact his revenge. John Flynn allows this masterpiece to develop at its own pace building the film not around the inevitable action but rather the drama that comes with a man who is pushed to the brink but never breaks. The parallels between Rane’s time in captivity and the life he has returned to are repeatedly drawn but never explicitly so, ensuring that the viewer discovers something new on each viewing. Thus, the more one watches this gem the better it gets. “Let’s go clean ‘em up”.
Rating: The Good – 86.1 Genre: Drama, War Duration: 182 mins Director: Michael Cimino Stars: Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken
The opening hour to Michael Cimino’s masterpiece is as real as life gets. Six young steelworkers from a small industrial town living it up for one last weekend of drunken mayhem and their ritual hunting before three of them head off to the Vietnam war. In this hour, we see both Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken giving searing performances that lay the groundwork for what is to come and the way in which Cimino switches to that darker war torn world almost in the blink of an eye is surely one of the most profound and punctuating of cinematic statements. Cimino’s craft in this film is all about pacing and trust in his actors and, with a cast that includes De Niro, Walken, John Cazale, and Meryl Streep the pay off was enormous. De Niro is as captivating as it gets and the film hangs on his shoulders. But none of the actors operating underneath him miss a step. The war scenes are few but so visceral and powerful are they that they will be with you forever. And just when you think it can’t get any better, The Deer Hunter ties everything together with one of the most poignant film endings.
Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness switches the action from Africa to Vietnam to telling effect given the reverberations the East Asian context would have with an audience of the late 70’s and beyond. Thus, in Apocalypse Now, Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard journeys up the Nung River with a boat full of assorted and richly drawn American GI’s to deal with Marlon Brando’s Col. Kurtz.
The stories behind the film’s making are legendary (a typhoon destroying the helicopters being used on the film, Martin Sheen’s health troubles, etc.) but the end product is a mesmerising and reflexive exploration of the dark side to humanity. Brando makes a brief but arresting appearance as the disturbed but magnetic leader of a rag-tag jungle army which includes Dennis Hopper in one of his more deranged roles (and that’s saying something!). However, Sheen’s contribution is just as important as Brando’s, if not more, as the film rests on his shoulders for the vast majority of its long duration. It’s a powerfully tempered performance that encapsulates, more than any of the others, the fragile and disturbing yet steely nature of man.
The last word, of course, should be reserved for Coppola for Apocalypse Now is a sublime piece of film-making. From the very opening sound that phases between the sound of helicopters and that ceiling fan to the illuminating shots that followed it to the audacious La Cavalcata Delle Valchirie sequence now immortalised as perhaps the most famous movie sequence of all time, the level of inspiration and innovation demonstrated here, both technical and from a purely artistic point of view, is simply spell-binding. It was also arguably Coppolla’s last truly great work and given that it was capping films like The Godfather Part I and Part II and The Conversation, he certainly seems to have burned twice as bright as practically every other director working at that time. And if Apocalypse Now really was his denouement as a genius director, it’s an utterly unforgettable piece of work to sign off on.
Rating: The Good – 75.3 Genre: War Duration: 120 mins Director: Oliver Stone Stars: Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe
Oliver Stone’s most personal film sees him visit the subject of the Vietnam war which he himself fought in. Charley Sheen stars as a young recruit who finds himself amongst a group of soldiers whose loyalties are divided between two enigmatic but very different platoon leaders. Sheen is very good in the lead but it’s Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe who make it so memorable as the hard boiled and murderous Sergeant Barnes and the inspirational and idealistic Sergeant Elias (respectively). The two actors are tremendous and each give iconic level performances. Stone captures both the boredom and terror of war superbly with the battle scenes in particular being truly sensational. His script is faultless striking the perfect balance between drama and reality. There are an array of top supporting actors on show who combine with the principals to makes this one of the better cinematic ensemble pieces.
Rating: The Good – 74.4 Genre: Drama Duration: 120 mins Director: John Milius Stars: Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt, Gary Busey
One of the better coming of age dramas that follows a group of three men through the defining years of their young lives. Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt, and Gary Busey are equally excellent (Vincent and Katt were accomplished surfers in real life – and it shows) as the friends who were bound by their love of surfing in their teenage years but who grew apart as those years passed. It’s a touching tale in many ways as personality, ambition, and era defining events such as the Vietnam War intersect to shift the dynamics and relationships. There’s a playfulness to the earlier scenes that echos that of American Graffiti but there’s also a somberness to the film centering on the notion of of times past and expressed poetically and quite beautifully in the interludes as the film jumps forward to another period in the mens’ lives. Bruce Surtees’ (son of the great Robert) beautifully captures the sea and surfing in a number of memorable sequences but John Milius is clever enough not to allow the film to be dominated by the action and instead he uses it as an emotional backdrop to the drama. This gives Big Wednesday a real sense of authenticity even in the more schmaltzy moments which serves to heighten the level of nostalgia that this film operates so successfully on.
Rating: The Good – 72.3 Genre: Action Duration: 93 mins Director: Ted Kotcheff Stars: Sylvester Stallone, Brian Dennehy, Richard Crenna
Don’t be fooled by the formulaic sequels, First Blood is a different animal altogether. Directed by Ted Kotcheff (a man more famous for comedies) this film offers a more soulful examination of the impact of the Vietnam war and the civilian attitude towards the soldiers who fought in it. It tells the story of a war hero John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) who after learning that the last of his unit is dead, is arrested by a petty small town sheriff (Brian Dennehy) because he has long hair and hasn’t shaved. Once in custody, his uncooperative attitude brings out the worst in the deputies and they begin humiliating and physically abusing him. Naturally, it’s not long before they’re on the floor and our hero is heading quickly for the local mountainside where he kills one of his pursuers and a massive manhunt unfolds led by the vengeful sheriff.
The threat that Rambo offers to Sheriff Teasle and his ego is the central thread to this film and both the action and drama tie into it wonderfully. Some of the dialogue is truly gripping such as when Rambo snares Teasle in the forest and, in a different context, it could sound cheesy. But in the context of a small town tough guy who has finally met the real thing, it cuts deep. Stallone is brilliant as the brooding killing machine while Dennehy makes his character work in a way not many could. The only negative to the film is Richard Crenna who hams every line he’s given but even that adds some unintentional humour to the proceedings. The action scenes are handled very well by Kotcheff with the tense forest sequence being a particular standout. Of course, they’re ably helped by the great Jerry Goldsmith’s edgy score. So ignore the sequels because as a stand-alone film First Blood ranks amongst the best of the action genre.
Rating: The Good – 83.8 Genre: War Duration: 116 mins Director: Stanley Kubrick Stars: Matthew Modine, Adam Baldwin
Full Metal Jacket has been unfairly maligned for its dramatic shift in focus and tone about 45 minutes in but for anyone who steps back from it, they’ll see that the change is utterly in sync with where the film was heading from the opening scene and that the quick transition counts as perhaps the bravest and most defining shift in gears since Cimino’s The Deer Hunter. We begin as a raw unit of recruits for the Vietnam War are being stripped of their identity in preparation for their savage training at boot camp. However, as their hard-as-nails Gunnery Sergeant tells them, this is not so as to make them robots but rather to build them up from scratch into pure killing machines. The techniques employed by this ferocious individual are both coarse and subtle as the natural drives of sex, love, and survival are welded together in the minds of these hormonally charged young men.
We are narrated through the training by Private Joker (Matthew Modine) who resists much of the Sergeant’s brainwashing but does ultimately get drawn in. Modine gets the performance just right and is neither overbearing enough to distract from the wider focus of the film nor overrun by the gargantuan presence of his drill instructor. R. Lee Ermey is that drill instructor in both craft and person and he consumes much of the opening 45 minutes. The most striking thing about this performance is how funny it is. The insults he screams in the faces of his charges are genuinely hysterical and if you haven’t seen it before you will laugh your way through it. Of course, once the transition to Vietnam occurs we are presented with the finished article, a bunch of raw killers who like good students, at least profess to enjoy their killing and express a desire “to be in the shit”. But something remains, something the Sergeant couldn’t get at and as the film comes to a close, the end is tied perfectly to the beginning and Kubrick’s work is complete.
Visually speaking, this is arguably Kubrick’s warmest picture along with The Killing and Spartacus as there is, unusually for Kubrick, much compassion for the characters he is focusing on. The contrast in colours (though still present) is less stark and the more frequent use of short lenses gives things a more personal focus. His perfect framing is still very much a feature and those wide/deep focused shots which he does employ (this is a Kubrick picture after all) along with his use of silhouette (particularly in the twilight PT sessions) are magnificent. The second half of the film is even more visually impressive and some of the battle sequences are extremely visceral. As is typical for a Kubrick film, the sound plays a central part in setting the tone of the film with Vivian Kubrick’s mechanical score seemingly working both diegetically and non-diegetically. Kubrick decided to shoot these scenes in England (as he did with all his later films) and it does take away from the South East Asian feel of the film. However, that is a small quibble against a truly exceptional piece of film-making.