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Taps: 25th Anniversary Special Edition

With a solid cast of young actors making early forays into feature films, Taps (1981) serves as a noteworthy calling card for Timothy Hutton, coming off his debut in Ordinary People (1980), in addition to Sean Penn and Tom Cruise in their first important screen roles. However, thanks to a smart script from Devery Freeman (from the novel by Robert Mark Kamen) and judicious direction by Harold Becker, this cable-TV favorite actually becomes more salient with every passing year, particularly in regards to the rise of regional and global terrorism. Hutton stars in Taps as Brian Moreland, the ranking cadet at Bunker Hill Academy, an elite military school overseen by aging Gen. Harlan Bache (George C. Scott). The soft-spoken general appears to be verging on retirement, but he commands respect from the cadets, and in particular Moreland, who never has bonded well with his own military father and regards Bache as both a hero and role model. However, when Gen. Bache reveals to the cadets and their families that Bunker Hill is to be closed and demolished to make way for a condominium development, the entire campus is thrown into confusion. And after a freak accident causes Gen. Bache to suffer a heart-attack, Moreland rounds up the students, confiscates the school's weapons, and closes the campus, insisting that they will not yield any ground until certain demands are met. It's only when the governor calls in the National Guard, led by hard-nosed Col. Kerby (Ronny Cox), that Moreland must choose between his lofty ideals or a more practical course of action.

Taps is distinguished by its cast, and it's no surprise that this one film served as a launching pad for the careers of Tom Cruise and Sean Penn, in addition to being the last significant film performance by George C. Scott before his long twilight of TV-movie appearances. Scott may look as if he's rekindling the ghost of Patton, but his Gen. Bache is a subdued, reflective man, while Penn, as cadet Alex Dwyer, is the conscience of the story, and Cruise, as psychotic cadet David Shawn, exists to serve the military mission — it's one of his best performances, and unfortunately one of the few times we will ever see perfect Tommy play an unsavory character. In retrospect, it's unfortunate that Hutton has not enjoyed a marquee career after Taps, as he plays the central figure of the story and is equal to his co-stars. As Moreland, he provides the rationale for seizing the campus, but he also struggles to forge an identity between his two archetypal subordinates — the cautious Dwyer, who does not believe in the mission but doesn't bail out on his friends either, and the hawkish Shawn, who would prefer a straight fight to all this waiting around. Both boys inhabit parts of Moreland's psyche, although as the tension increases the ranking cadet begins to grow erratic. Indeed, it is indicated that the outside world regards the seizure of Bunker Hill Academy to be an act of "home-grown terrorism," but the small genius of Taps confines the drama within stone walls — we never know much beyond Moreland's scope, and his descent into glassy-eyed paranoia tears at our sympathies until he finally is reduced to arguing with Col. Kerby about the youngest boys in the compound, claiming that "the final stage of any mobilization is the children." Kerby's horrific gaze reflects our own — and we realize how easily rational causes can be warped into irrational actions. Ultimately, Moreland tries to win a public-relations battle with a military operation, and fails. Taps shows how seductive such a cause can be — it's a theme that can only gain resonance in a world where small groups of disenfranchised people believe that armed conflict is a viable means of political negotiation.

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Fox's second DVD release of Taps, as a "25th Anniversary Special Edition," upgrades the previous bare-bones disc, although the technical features remain the same, with a clean anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) and Dolby Digital 4.0 audio (the Dolby 2.0 Surround option has been deleted). New to this edition is a commentary by director Harold Becker, as well as the featurettes "Sounding the Call to Arms: Mobilzing the Taps Generation" (30 min.) and "The Bugler's Cry: The Origins of Playing 'Taps'" (7 min.). Trailers and TV spots, keep-case.
—JJB



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