Fox // 1981 // 126 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron (Retired) // October 6th, 2006
"This school is our home; we think it's worth defending."
On the eve of the senior commencement at Bunker Hill Military Academy, the school is shocked by some unexpected news: the Board of Directors has decided to sell the property for real estate development. Within a year, the 140-year-old institution will be leveled and condominiums will take its place. Naturally, the school's commander, General Bache (George C. Scott, Patton) is devastated. He has devoted his life to the cadets and had just named one of his favorites, Brian Moreland (Timothy Hutton, Ordinary People), a major. When an incident with the "townies" during a dance turns deadly, the Governor decides to shut the place down immediately. Wanting to make a stand for the honor of the institution, Moreland rounds up buddies Alex Dwyer (Sean Penn, Fast Times at Ridgemont High), David Shawn (Tom Cruise, Top Gun), and Edward West (Evan Handler, Sex in the City) to overthrow the administration and save the school. At first, everything is peaceful. Then the National Guard shows up. Their leader, a no-nonsense colonel named Kerby (Ronnie Cox, Robocop) warns the kids: if they don't give up soon, they will retake the institution by force. Thus a battle of wits is waged between the honor-bound students and the outsiders who want an end to this ideological siege.
Taps tried too hard. If its problems had to be summed up in a single sentence, it would be that a short story-style issue is essentially dragged out over two overlong hours. Because Bunker Hill Academy is set up as a military school with more heart and hero worship than hate, our AWOL students, hellbent on saving their sacred institution, don't come across as misguided or mean. Instead, with a couple of clear exceptions, these are kids caught up in the emotion of the moment, isolated individuals suddenly forced to defend their educational erudition and basic training brainwashing. Though it attempts to balance elements of other, better private school plotlines, what we end up with is a clear case of the well-armed lunatics taking over the asylum. That means that, as an audience, we have to sympathize with the gung-ho wee ones or find ourselves disconnected from the whole unrealistic situation. Sadly, Taps doesn't give us much to care about. Even in the capable hands of director Harold Becker -- responsible for The Onion Field and Sea of Love -- and actors George C. Scott, Ronnie Cox, Sean Penn, Tom Cruise, and then-recent Oscar winner Timothy Hutton, what should have been a tight, taut thriller ended up being A Separate Peace with far more firepower. Instead of identifying with the issues at hand, we keep praying for an end to all this problematic posturing.
Indeed, the plot is one of Taps' most troublesome issues. Aside from the connection to Scott's General Bache and their own inner sense of honor, there is really no reason for these students to take over the school. The incident with the locals also feels tacked on and unnecessary. Indeed, it seems like Becker and screenwriters Robert Mark Kamen and Darryl Ponicsan keep dreaming up reasons for the cadets to be belligerent. They start out with simple demands that could have easily been agreed to -- all they really wanted was answers -- but somehow, the motivation gets jumbled up in some notion of tradition and, by the time a few guns go off, the resulting bloodshed further clouds the concepts. Accidents become acts of premeditated murder and incidental concerns become the reason why force finally has to be considered. There are so many middle-act time-wasters -- a confrontation with National Guard Commander Cox, parents who seem more concerned about saying their lines than looking for their kids -- that we wonder why the movie had to be over two hours long. Then, just when it looks like this slightly saggy drama will just drain away, a final-act mania overcomes a cadet and suddenly the artillery is flying. It's way too much way too late.
For its time, Taps played directly into the early '80s adolescent ideal. It presupposed the brat pack, gave Penn his first serious exposure, and proved that Cruise could act -- outside his belief in alien souls from another dimension trapped on Earth, that is. It also heralded the beginning of Hutton's post-Oscar slide. Frankly, anything after Ordinary People would pale in comparison, but his role as Cadet Major Brian Moreland is so underwritten that we never know what attracts him to the position of problem-maker or why the rest of his class considers him so wonderful. Hutton is humble to the point of being inert, his lack of emotion really undercut by Penn's professional turn and Cruise's obvious instigator. Heck, Hutton's even overshadowed by a pair of tweens who take the notion of playing Army very seriously. This makes Moreland's fate all the more meaningless. Whatever happens to him -- good, bad, or indifferent -- we've never invested enough in his character to care. While the film looks fine (Becker utilizes an actual campus to give the movie a nice bit of authenticity) and never once goes overboard with the "insane military" cliché that clouds most stories of this type, Taps still can't find its narrative force. It just sits there, studied, as the audience grows more and more distant from the dynamics at hand.
Previously available in a bare-bones DVD presentation that left a lot to be desired, this 25th Anniversary Edition from Sony is technically superior to that prior release. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is a little soft, but presents its colorful and detail-rich image in a wonderfully evocative transfer. You can almost feel the tension in the air all throughout the carefully controlled compositions. As for the aural elements, the Dolby Digital 4.0 Surround mix makes infrequent use of all the channels and, aside from some directional sonics during the finale, there is not much here to warrant substantial praise. At least the dialogue is easily discernible and crystal clear.
As for extras, this DVD boasts a trio of rather underwhelming offerings. First up is director Becker's audio commentary. The best way to describe this discussion is as a trip through the bleeding obvious. Anecdotal, repetitive (this filmmaker loves to praise his young cast's energy and devotion), and filled with easily observable insights ("this was a hard scene to stage") it makes us wish someone else would come along and provide some color. Instead, we get an initially entertaining, but otherwise sparse alternate narrative. The 30-minute "making-of," entitled "Sound the Call to Arms: Mobilizing the Taps Generation" is a much better production overview. Featuring several members of the crew -- and Hutton as the only actor, sadly -- there is more clarification and information on how the movie came about than in all of Becker's basic discussion. Finally, a featurette explaining how "Taps" became the "bugler's cry" is offered, and it's seven minutes of engaging explanation. Toss in some trailers and TV spots and you've got a far more fleshed-out digital package.
During its time, many considered Taps to be a tour de force for the fine young actors at the center of the story. Now it's just some jingoistic junk. At one point toward the end, Timothy Hutton argues that he and his fellow fighters are exactly what the military wanted and made, more or less. After seeing this sloppy slice of stunted suspense, the Army apparently wanted hostages, not heroes.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 4.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 126 Minutes
Release Year: 1981
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Full-length Audio Commentary from Director Harold Becker
* "Sounding the Call to Arms: Mobilizing the Taps Generation" Documentary Featurette
* "The Bugler's Cry: The Origins of Playing 'Taps'" Documentary Featurette
* TV Spots