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Casualties of War

Though he had been trying for many years to make Casualties of War, by the time Brian De Palma got to film his Vietnam movie he was following in many footsteps. Francis Ford Coppola paved the way with 1979's Apocalypse Now, but by 1989 America had seen a glut of 'Nam flicks harping on the war's futility, ranging from Oliver Stone's Oscar winning Platoon and Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket to low-budget fare like Hamburger Hill and 84C MoPic; the market was so saturated with Vietnam that there were even two TV shows about it. Thus it's no surprise — even with a positively glowing Pauline Kael review attached — that Casualties of War floundered upon its initial release, perhaps pushed over the edge by what appeared to be another "serious" Michael J. Fox turn (after Bright Lights, Big City and Light of Day — if anyone remembers those gems). But De Palma was never interested in a socio-political statement, instead focusing on his two favorite themes: impotence and betrayal, and with stunning results. Based on a true story, Casualties of War tells the story of PFC Eriksson (Fox) who comes under Sgt. Messerve (Sean Penn) after Messerve saves his life. Eriksson is more interested in treating the Vietnamese with respect, but Messerve — who's got less than a month left on his tour of duty — has stopped caring about the situation and just wants to get home. When Messerve's best friend Brownie gets killed in a sneak attack — by VC who received help from the supposedly U.S.-friendly village they were staying in — he snaps, and then figures out how he's gonna get his payback: He'll kidnap a local girl and let him and his men have their way with her (which Eriksson thinks it's a joke, until he does it). Fellow squad mate Clark (Don Harvey) is enthused by it, Hatcher (John C. Reilly) amused, and new guy Diaz (John Leguizamo) nervous. Only Eriksson seems to think it's a deplorable idea, but as the men cajole Diaz into raping the girl, pressure mounts in the good ol' boy fashion against Eriksson as they taunt and tease him — from questioning his sexuality to casual death threats. Eriksson tries to bring his squad to justice after the mission, but he faces even more difficulty getting the brass to listen to him.

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An emotional powerhouse of a film that is unlike any other Vietnam picture, Casualties of War brushes aside the politics of the conflict to focus on the battle in the mind of Eriksson, which may be more indicative of the war's futility. Knowing that he owes his life to Messerve, but trying not to bend to his will, Eriksson's stuck in an impossible situation: He wants to help the girl, but also not desert his fellow soldiers or get killed. Structured in flashback sequences, the film couches his story in the guilt he feels over his inability to stop the other men, and his moment of indecision. Shouldered with this — surprisingly — Michael J. Fox gives his finest screen performance, and though Eriksson's moral rectitude is sometimes piled on a little thick, we understand his frustrations (and this is one of those rare movies where a main character sticks to his principles). Even better is Sean Penn, giving the sense that he has seen too much and can no longer tell the difference between those he's helping and fighting, making his character more than just malicious. Brian De Palma has always been an operatic director, and here he takes the grand tragedy of Blow Out one step further, working from the script of playwright and Vietnam vet David Rabe. De Palma's control of frame — with his masterful use of Steadicam POV shots, Dutch angles, and split-screens — keeps the movie from being overwhelmed by the tragedy of its context, making for some bravura filmmaking. The quality of De Palma's output has noticeably lessened since this effort; the '90s brought about a series of films that ranged from merely competent to awful. But, if this was his last gasp — as it were — it was worth it. Columbia TriStar's DVD release of Casualties of War presents the film in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1), with audio in Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround . Supplements include a 19-minute interview with Michael J. Fox, which complements a clip-heavy 30-minute documentary with comments from De Palma, producer Art Linson, and others. Also included are five short cut scenes (all of which were wisely trimmed), filmographies, and trailers. Keep-case.

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