Though it doesn’t break much new ground thematically, “Tigerland,” Joel Schumacher’s Vietnam War movie, is a tautly focused, well-executed drama that represents his most coherent and satisfying work since 1993’s “Falling Down.” A terrific cast of mostly unknowns is toplined by Colin Farrell, an Irish actor whose good looks and charisma speak well for a vital Hollywood career. It’s been a long time since a major studio has released a Vietnam War film, which may help “Tigerland,” but, even under the best circumstances, critical support and effective marketing will be crucial for the positioning of this intimately scaled Fox picture.
Pic continues Schumacher’s recent preference for smaller, more personal films, which stand in sharp contrast to the “Batman” and other “big event” movies he made earlier in his career. In many respects, “Tigerland” is helmer’s most independent and experimental work, as well as the closest a Hollywood movie has come to adopting the tenets of Dogma 95. Stylistically, the new film relies on a restless handheld camera and natural lighting as much as possible, and avoids the more typically emotional Hollywood score.
“Tigerland” belongs to a cycle of Vietnam movies that focused on the internal psychology of a small fighting unit, most notably “Platoon,” “Full Metal Jacket” and “Hamburger Hill.” Set in 1971, the intense narrative centers on the group dynamics within an infantry platoon in its last phase of basic training. The novel point of Ross Klavan and Michael McGruther’s well-honed script is its setting: Story begins at Fort Lake, La., then switches to Tigerland, a wilderness designated by the Army for jungle combat simulation — the very last stop before Vietnam.
The tightly structured story introduces a half-dozen characters who, initially, have little more in common than their youth and the realization that they are trapped in a morally questionable war that has polarized American society. As the specter of combat hangs over the men, they are forced to deal with the most painful and scariest issue of all: death.
The soldiers are diverse in their motivations to fight and in their approaches toward survival. As the story begins, Pvt. Jim Paxton (Matthew Davis), who serves as the narrator, observes that he expects the war to inform his writing, a romantic notion that he himself admits to have drawn from such macho writers as Hemingway and James Jones (the latter’s WWII book “The Thin Red Line” was made into a movie by Terrence Malick in 1998).
Paxton is a naive and idealistic soldier who chose to enlist. Contrasted with him are Miter (Clifton Collins Jr.), a sensitive boy who hopes to prove himself a real man in combat, and Wilson (Shea Whigham), a brute with a killer’s mentality and a disturbing zeal for bloodshed. Cantwell (Thomas Guiry) simply resigns himself to the inevitable, and Johnson (Russell Richardson) is a brave, honest black soldier.
The center is occupied by a rebellious antihero, Roland Bozz (Farrell), whose defiance of Army rules and regulations will ultimately galvanize every member of the platoon. A college dropout who’s had a number of run-ins with the law, Bozz is a modern version of James Dean/Marlon Brando, with a touch of Montgomery Clift. Just released from the base stockade, Bozz makes no secret that he wants out of the Army.
Scripters do a fine job of disclosing bits and pieces of Bozz’s inner self as he stages small acts of protest and operates under pressure, ultimately building the tale around his gradual transformation from an immature youngster to a responsible leader.
It’s a tribute to the writers that they translate the ideologies that divided America’s collective conscience into specific, realistic and credible situations. This is particularly evident in two climactic scenes that make it clear that the real “enemy” was within the unit. In its good moments, which are plentiful, “Tigerland” recalls “Streamers,” David Rabe’s forceful play (later a film by Altman), which was set in an earlier phase of the war but also served as a parable about manhood and death.
Schumacher’s decision to use unknown actors has paid off: The faces are fresh and innocent as they should be. Each of the 10 or so actors is given at least one big dramatic scene, but the film does not feel theatrical at all.
From the very first scene, audience sympathy is with Farrell, who shines as the subversive yet basically decent lad whose cynicism may be the only sane reaction to an insane situation. The entire ensemble is excellent, from Davis’ would-be writer to Whigham’s Wilson, whose insecurities and zeal to kill lead to horrific consequences.
Assisted by the inventive lenser Matthew Libatique (who shot Darren Aronofsky’s “Pi” and “Requiem for a Dream”), Schumacher employs a semi-documentary style, keeping his dynamic camera close to the action, always reflecting reality from the grunts’ p.o.v. Pic’s overall impact derives in no small measure from helmer’s choice to avoid tripod and dolly in favor of handheld 16mm camera. Both technically and emotionally gratifying, “Tigerland” demonstrates that it’s still possible to make small, intimate and personal movies within the Hollywood studio system.