|Casualites of War (1989)
Starring: Michael J. Fox, Sean Penn, John C. Reilly, John Leguizamo, Ving Rhames, Thuy Thu Le
Director: Brian DePalma
“Casualties of War” has aged far better than anyone might’ve expected, given the commercial brush-off it received when it was originally released. The film hit theaters the same year “Family Ties” was going off the air, and it was hard to see Michael J. Fox playing PFC Eriksson without picturing him as Alex P. Keaton. (This, by the way, is pretty much the same reason it was hard to get lost in Fox’s role in 1988’s “Bright Lights, Big City.”) Now that there’s considerably more between Michael J. Fox and his days as a sitcom star, not to mention the fact that Fox has gone through the very public personal saga dealing with Parkinson’s Disease, it’s far easier to buy him as a dramatic actor.
Given today’s world climate, watching a war movie isn’t much of an escape, but, then, “Casualties of War” has never claimed to offer one. Watching this film is a harrowing, disconcerting viewing experience, less for its depiction of life in combat than for its all-too-realistic portrayal of how soldiers can get caught up in a power trip and become detached from something as seemingly inherent as common human decency.
Private Ericksson (Fox) has only been in Vietnam for three weeks when his life is saved by his commanding officer, Sgt. Meserve (Sean Penn). Despite that debt, however, Ericksson absolutely cannot get behind Meserve when the sarge decides that he and his boys need to “get a woman” and, to accomplish this, kidnaps and rapes a local Vietnamese girl. With the rest of the squad behind the sergeant, however, Ericksson struggles to comprehend the rationalization behind Meserve’s actions and determine what, if anything, he can do to stop him.
Penn and Fox put in tremendous performances. Penn’s consistency as an actor was already well documented at this point, but it’s Fox’s performance that makes the film; he succeeds in perfectly encapsulating the naiveté of an inexperienced soldier as well as that of a young man who discovers the hard way that there are some beliefs that he’s willing to do or say anything to stand behind. Ving Rhames has a rather small part as Meserve’s superior, Lt. Reilly, but he scores a monologue that’s delivered in a manner so reminiscent of his character from “Pulp Fiction” that one wonders if this is the film that caused Quentin Tarantino to say, “That’s my Marsellus Wallace!” Also appearing in strong supporting roles are John C. Reilly and John Leguizamo, but the unsung hero of this film is Thuy Thu Lee, who played the victimized Vietnamese girl; Lee never appeared in anything before or after this role, but her performance is almost as crucial as Fox’s. Also of note is the score by Ennio Morricone, which is equal parts jarring and haunting.
Truth be told, Brian DePalma hasn’t done a truly classic film since “Casualties of War.” So if you need to wash the taste of “Snake Eyes” and “Mission to Mars” out of your mouth…and, boy, does that taste linger…revisiting this flick is the way to go.
This is billed as the “Extended Cut,” but, unfortunately, the original cut of the film isn’t included, so if you haven’t seen the film in awhile – or ever, for that matter – you’ll have no idea what’s new and what isn’t (six minutes have been added; that’s about all I can tell you with any certainty), so it won’t be all that special for you. What is cool, however, is the inclusion of two new featurettes: “The Making of ‘Casualties of War,’ with interviews with DePalma and others behind the scenes, and “Ericksson’s War,” a new conversation with Michael J. Fox about his role and how he came to be in the film. No sign of Sean Penn anywhere, sadly.