USA 2000
director : Joel Schumacher
script : Ross Klavan, Michael McGruther
cinematography : Matthew Libatique
editing : Mark Stevens
lead actors : Colin Farrell, Matthew Davis, Shea Wigham, Clifton Collins Jr
109 minutes

Early word on Tigerland suggested a startling breakthrough for Joel Schumacher, a radical, dogme-style departure from the box-office behemoths – like the last two Batman sequels – for which he’s best known. Sad to say, the early word was dead wrong: no amount of wobbly camerawork and grainy film-stock can hide the basic fact that the film is as cartoonish as any Caped Crusader escapade: a cobwebby collection of clichd situations and characters, with handsome, noble heroes pitted against nasty-looking, despicable villains. There’s no shortage of pictures telling us how terrible war is in general, and how awful Vietnam was in particular. If directors and writers must plough this muddy furrow again, they’ve got to bring something new to the campfire.

The premise recalls Walter Hill’s far superior Southern Comfort (1981), another not-quite-Vietnam drama shadowing a platoon of not-quite-soldiers (National Guardsmen) through the Louisiana bayou. In Tigerland the not-quite-soldiers are infantrymen undergoing final training before heading off to south-east Asia. The audience’s surrogate is volunteer Paxton (Davis), a would-be writer in search of material who strikes gold when he meets fellow grunt Roland Bozz (Farrell), a wisecracking, too-kool-for-skool renegade. Bozz rails against the lunk-headed brutality of his commanding officers who fear his anarchic, subversive presence will ‘infect’ his brothers-in-arms. Bozz’s stance also riles some of the more gung-ho soldiers, principally the borderline psychotic Johnson (Wigham). As tensions mount, violent resolutions seem increasingly inevitable.

Increasingly inevitable and, unfortunately, increasingly predictable – there’s nothing in Tigerland that hasn’t been done before, done much better, in a dozen westerns and war pictures. In a stab at post-modernism, the screenplay gives Bozz numerous mocking lines about how various characters and situations in the training camp recall this genre’s movies, books, and cartoons – it’s possible to see the film as a distorted, exaggerated representation of Paxton’s memories, on which he’s forced to rely after the iconoclastic Bozz shreds his notebooks. Possible, but too charitable – these flimsy excuses can’t mask Tigerland‘s failure to find any new or interesting twists on the old set-ups. Corniness kills tension.

The Bozz character is the most promising element, but he ends up unbalancing an enterprise entirely constructed around this dazzling paragon of hunky virtue, a barrack-room lawyer with a keen knowledge of army-regulation loopholes. He’s Great Escape McQueen, Cuckoo’s Nest Nicholson, Paths of Glory Douglas, Wild One Brando and Rebel Without a Cause Dean, all wrapped up in one dinky package – except, of course, Schumacher makes sure we never realise just how dinky. During a night on the town Bozz is approached by a desperate young draftee, who’s heard there are only two ways to avoiding Vietnam: praying to Jesus or talking to Roland Bozz. Bozz laughs off the comparison, but the young draftee is never seen again – he’s put there purely for our benefit, to make sure we get the message.

Compare and contrast this with Jim Caviezel in The Thin Red Line. His Private Witt was a bit of a saint, but just as much a fool, a holy goof. Malick’s direction shared Witt’s transcendent attitude to the nature, but the script had the maturity to place him as an ambiguous character within a coherent wider narrative. Or what about Mark Ruffalo’s Terry Prescott from You Can Count On Me, 2000’s other Brando-esque breakthrough, but with adult complexities and faults that made him a convincing, fully-dimensional individual, alluring and frustrating in equal measure. Bozz, on the other hand, has nowhere to go – he’s stuck in an adolescent movie that can’t develop any of its characters or themes. There’s no denying that Irishman Farrell is an exciting screen presence, even if his Texan twang has a lot of Dublin around its edges – but if he’ll never fulfil his movie-star potential, unless he steers clear of such third-rate scripts and second-rate directors.

Schumacher can’t resist ‘Hollywooding up’ a project which could and should have been stripped-down, basic, bullshit-free. Cinematographer Libatique shoots most of the film in a pleasantly rough documentary style, but this makes the bursts of trickery – slow and fast motion; the use of voiceovers and non-synchronous sound; deployment of multiple cameras, some fixed in place, one attached to a truck – stand out a mile. They’re as jarringly inappropriate as the over-familiar moody-woodwindy soundtrack score, and the end result is to emphasise the unreality of what we’re seeing. Schumacher doesn’t seem to trust his material – panicking, he either reaches for some inappropriate directorial flourish or, more often, just cuts to Bozz. He doesn’t realise that charisma alone, even when it’s this intense, does not a proper movie make.

5th June, 2001

by Neil Young
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