Starring:George C. Scott, Timothy Hutton, Ronny Cox, Sean Penn, Tom Cruise, Brendan Ward, Evan Handler, John P. Navin, Jr., Billy Van Zandt, Giancarlo Esposito
Director: Harold Becker
Perhaps the most striking thing about the 25th Anniversary Special Edition of “Taps” is that it’s emblazoned with a sticker that trumpets how it features “Tom Cruise in his second film role!”
It immediately begs several questions:
- In this current climate, with Tommy boy experiencing no love from Paramount and having just about everyone convinced that he’s a big ol’ nutball, is anything Cruise-related really all that great a selling point?
- What’s so impressive about it being his second film role, anyway? Will “Losin’ It” be reissued with a big sticker reminding everyone that it was Cruise’s fourth film role?
- And, hello, where’s the sticker – or even a mention in the text on the back of the box, for God’s sake – that “Taps” was actually Sean Penn’s first film role?
Okay, I’m done.
Filmed at the Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne, PA, “Taps” details the life of a bunch of teenaged cadets, led by the newly appointed Cadet Major Brian Moreland (Timothy Hutton), under the watchful eye of General Harlan Bache (George C. Scott). Things are running smoothly until it’s determined that the Academy – renamed Bunker Hill for the film – is to be closed and torn down in favor of, ugh, condominiums. Bache is saddened but seemingly resigned to Bunker Hill’s fate, while Moreland is less prepared to go down without a fight.
Unfortunately, things get messy when, during the end-of-year dance, there’s a tussle with some belligerent local youths – townies, as they’re called by the cadets – and Bache accidentally shoots and kills one of the teenagers, then promptly has a heart attack. With things in such a turmoil, military officials arrive to begin the dismantling of the Academy immediately and not even wait until the end of the summer semester…but Moreland decides it’s time to take a stand.
With the help of his best friend, Cadet Captain Alex Dwyer (Penn), and the decidedly gung-ho Cadet Captain David Shawn (Cruise), the troops…some of whom aren’t even into puberty yet…are rallied and called to arms. Understandably, the military doesn’t take kindly to cadets trying to take matters into their own hands, and the end result is a stand-off. The first move is to use the kids’ parents to sway them to surrender, but after that, Colonel Kerby (Ronny Cox) of the National Guard is called in, with tanks sitting at the front gate of the Academy.
Hutton, who’d just come off the success of “Ordinary People,” does an adequate job in the role, but he spends so much time attempting to play the part of an aloof commander that it isn’t until the last third of the film – when his plans begin to collapse around him – where he really begins to show his acting chops. Penn, however, shines throughout the movie; even though it was his motion picture debut, anyone seeing “Taps” would’ve known instantly that he had a major career ahead of him. Scott, of course, is the best possible choice to play General Bache; the only shame about his performance is that there isn’t more of it. By the way, although it was a completely different situation, the ending of the film brings to mind Columbine; it also doesn’t exactly do anything to convince anyone that their theories about Cruise being nuts are off-base…oh, but I’ve said too much.
“Taps” moves a little too slow at times, but, for the most part, it remains gripping. It’s particularly interesting how it draws a line between teenagers and adults. On a personal note, I originally saw the film when I was 11, and I kept rooting for the cadets until the point where it became obvious that the “war” was unwinnable; watching it now, however, it was pretty early into the proceedings when I found myself thinking, “C’mon, you’ve lost, you should just go ahead and give up now.” I don’t know if that’s because I’m a parent now, or if it’s because I’ve lost a lot more battles now than I had when I first watched the film…but don’t be surprised if, once you figure out whose side you’re on in “Taps,” you find yourself wondering how you got there.
In addition to audio commentary by director Harold Becker, there’s a brand new documentary, “Sounding the Call to Arms: Mobilizing the ‘Taps’ Generation,” that’s extremely illuminating. It’s not really a surprise to find that neither Cruise nor Penn could find the time to contribute new interviews, but it’s good to see Hutton discussing the film; it’s a shame, though, that they didn’t get new interviews with a few of the guys who played the other cadets in the film. There’s also a short featurette about the origins of how buglers came to play “Taps” in the first place, which is a nice touch.