Joel Schumacher’s “Tigerland”, a 1999 movie about enlistees and reluctant draftees trying to survive the brutality of basic training in preparation for shipping off to Vietnam in 1971, might have been a pretty darn good movie. That is, if you hadn’t already seen Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket”, which spent half of its running length on Marine boot camp before taking the film to Vietnam during the Tet Offensive. “Tigerland” would still be a decent movie even if you’ve seen Kubrick’s movie, but it would also be just more of the same-o same-o if you’ve seen another Vietnam Is Hell movie. “Platoon”, “Apocalypse Now”, and numerous others come to mind.
The point is, “Tigerland” is old hat, and as a result its serious meditations on life and death and what constitutes the “making of a man” and the “color of a coward” is, well, old hat. Which isn’t a bad thing, since director Joel Schumacher has started the path to redemption for the miserable existence of “Batman and Robin” and “Batman Forever” with this gritty, grounded drama. (His 2003 film, the exciting and colorful “Phone Booth”, which also stars Colin Farrell, was also fun and immensely enjoyable.)
Here, Farrell plays Bozz, a Texas boy with leadership abilities, but lacking the desire to go to war or, as he puts it, “kill little Vietnamese children in rice paddies.” While in basic training Bozz finds friendship in Paxton (Matthew Davis), a New Yorker who has voluntarily enlisted to go to Vietnam. Paxton plans on being a writer, and wants the experience of war and combat to write about. Paxton is, in short, everything Bozz isn’t. While the two men have different perspectives on the war, they manage to become close friends anyway. Unfortunately not everyone is as competent as Bozz and Paxton. One of the recruits, another enlistee name Wilson (Shea Whigham), has “psychopath” written all over his forehead.
For “Tigerland”, Schumacher has shrugged off the constraints of Hollywood gloss in favor of Dogme-like filmmaking. The director uses handheld cameras extensively and employs Ryan’s War POV for the film’s more frenetic combat training sequences. (The film never actually shifts to Vietnam. It ends with the recruits shipping out.) The movie is dirty and gritty and sometimes hard to make out who is who because of all the dark patches of shadows. I guess that was the whole purpose — to put us into the middle of the misery and dreck of jungle warfare. Well done, although I don’t quite care for the “let’s make it look cheap even though we have a bunch of money” gimmick. It reeks of self-indulgence.
The screenplay is probably the movie’s weakest element. It offers up a host of familiar characters and situations. Again, I go back to Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket”. There is not a single character in “Tigerland” that hasn’t already appeared in “Jacket”. The result is that “Tigerland” lacks originality. Who didn’t know that the first white soldier to call a black person the “n” word would turn out to not only be the villain, but also the resident psychopath? (And yes, he does have a Southern accent. Stereotype much, Hollywood?) Let’s not forget about the Drill Instructor who beats a soldier to within an inch of his life. Or the other D.I. who tries to electrocute a soldier in the scrotum. Give me a break.
The only thing worth noting about “Tigerland”, besides its derivative screenplay and oh-so-familiar themes, is the performance of Colin Farrell, who actually made me believe he’s a good ol boy from Texas with a good head on his shoulders. Farrell does good work here, and I’ll even go so far as to say that taking this role was a risky move for him. But it pays off for Farrell, and as a result I now see him as more than just another pretty boy Hollywood is trying to force down our throats. The boy can act, that’s for sure. (Ben Affleck needs to take notes. Risk, Ben. It’s called risk. Look it up.)
It goes without saying that director Joel Schumacher knew what he was getting into with this movie. There’s no doubt he’s trying to wash off the stink of his “Batman” movies. I congratulate him for taking the risk, although he’ll need to make another couple of these movies for me to forgive him for killing off the Caped Crusader.
Joel Schumacher (director) / Ross Klavan, Michael McGruther (screenplay)
CAST: Colin Farrell …. Bozz
Matthew Davis …. Jim Paxton
Clifton Collins Jr. …. Miter
Tom Guiry …. Cantwell
Shea Whigham …. Private Wilson