Judge Dennis Prince doesn't think there's any room for wisecracks when it comes to the pain of veterans suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. He's serious.
A hero of war, a casualty of peace, with only one hope for survival…his son.
In the late 1980s, Hollywood decided to resurrect the trauma of the Vietnam war and squeeze it for all it was worth—again. Just as Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now sparked a wave of 'Nam films in 1979, so too did Oliver Stone's Platoon (and Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket) less than a decade later. Among the spawn of "police action" pictures that overran theater screens near the end of the "Me Decade" came this film, Distant Thunder, a picture that focused on the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder instead of wallowing in the midst of the bloody battles of the Vietnam jungles. Of course, such an endeavor would require a insightful and incisive script, guided by the deliberate hand of a thinking-man's director, brought to life by an expert cast of actors, right? So does this film deliver something truly unique and enlightening for its day? Let's see.
Facts of the Case
In the lush forests of Washington state, a handful of Vietnam veterans have exiled themselves to live away from society, away from the civilian vitriol, and away from any situation where they may be unable to control their uncontrollable killing instincts. A makeshift shanty tucked deep into the wooded area serves as home to caustic Harvey Nitz (Reb Brown), 'Larry the Amigo' (Denis Arndt), and Mark Lambert (John Lithgow, 3rd Rock from the Sun). While Harvey and Larry are clearly unable to regain any sort of societal composure, Mark is less unbalanced but is clinically depressed about having deserted his wife and their son, Jack (Ralph Macchio, The Karate Kid), a boy now 18 years old. As Mark struggles to make contact with the son he so longs to speak to, so too is Jack preoccupied with his father's absence. In an attempt to leave the "bush" and re-enter the local population, Mark meets the compassionate Char (Kerrie Keane), who helps the veteran find employment at the lumber company where she works. Mark confesses his desire—his need—to contact his son, and Char, who lost her father in Vietnam, provides the encouragement and assistance needed to arrange the meeting. However, as Jack is traveling from Illinois to meet his father, Mark bolts back to the shanty homestead after a barroom brawl. Char explains the situation to the impatient yet persistent Jack when he arrives, and the two hike into the woods to locate Mark. But, as the shanty is surrounded by Constantine wire and a posted warning "trespassers will be executed," Char and Jack soon find they're in grave danger.
If you've never heard of Distant Thunder, you're not alone. Although I'm familiar with most of John Lithgow's work (having been absolutely 'wowed' by him in 1982's Blow Out), I, too, was unaware of this picture. The DVD insert does little to attract your eye, the headshot of Lithgow making him hardly recognizable—he looks more like a cross between Harrison Ford from The Fugitive and Dan Haggerty of The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams. The three-quarter profile of Ralph Macchio incites uneasy recollections of all that Karate Kid dreck. This film—and this DVD release—therefore is a sleeper waiting to be discovered. Find it and spin it in your DVD tray, because there's a powerful story inside, boosted by excellent performances and some arguably capable directing.
Lithgow shows you something you've rarely seen from him, flawlessly portraying an introverted, brooding, and disturbed veteran whose inner turmoil seeps from every pore with unrivaled realism. His averted gaze, his monosyllabic responses, his fidgety mannerisms, and his penchant to snap into violent self-defense make Mark Lambert one of the most believable characters you've seen in some time. And while I was certainly ready to dismiss Ralph Macchio from the outset, believing I'd have to endure his character for the duration, I was pleasantly surprised to see him adequately fill out his role as Jack. Granted, Macchio still had the sort of snotty demeanor that has irked me in several of his other projects, bit he seems to have retrieved something from deep within himself as he convincingly plays this confused, torn, and ultimately emotionally tattered teenager so desperate for his father's love and companionship. Not an Oscar-worthy performance, mind you, but Macchio shows us another side that's refreshing for sure. Kerrie Keane performs believably, too, yet not nearly as much as do Denis Arndt and Reb Brown as the two visibly disturbed and emotionally volatile shanty-mates.
The production value on display here is impressive, largely thanks to the terrific vistas captured by Director of Photography Ralph Bode. There's a perpetual mist that hangs in the air, a permeating dampness, and a very unsettling Vietnam-like quality to the woods where the action occurs. Director Rick Rosenthal (Bad Boys) maintains an appropriate pace that accentuates the brooding tone of the picture, unafraid to spend long silent minutes capturing sequences that allow the overwhelming yet unspoken emotions to pour forth. Although he's mainly directed television productions, Rosenthal was surely up to the task here. All of this is accentuated perfectly by composer Maurice Jarre's haunting score. All in all, the film understands the heavy tone it wants to establish and goes on to do so very effectively.
As far as this DVD goes—well, you'll likely be brooding too if you have any high-quality expectations of the disc. The transfer itself, presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen format, looks just okay. The source print used was not the cleanest around, exhibiting frequent imperfections and dirt. There's a frequent grain that also peppers the image, giving this one more of a VHS look and feel. It's certainly not unwatchable, and you'll likely look past the visual imperfections as the story moves along, but if you're a true videophile this one will trigger your digital defenses. The audio is offered in a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix as well as a 2.0 stereo track. Naturally, the 5.1 mix is superior and the surround channels get active during a couple of jungle shootouts. The subwoofer, however, mostly sleeps through the entire run. There are no extras on this disc—not a one—but this is what we've unhappily come to expect from penny-pinching Paramount.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While Distant Thunder does well to present an engaging emotional excursion into the psyche of the Vietnam veteran and his affected loved ones, the picture sadly injects a clumsy and overplayed plot mechanism: an obligatory conflict with a tertiary character that merely gives the film an excuse to stage an action-laden final act. It's a highly unnecessary element in this picture, since the interaction between Mark and Jack is of enough interest that the "jealous and vengeful boyfriend" sub-plot is annoying and distracting. Thankfully, it doesn't overwhelm the final resolution; it just makes us wait until we can get to it.
While my expectations were certainly low for this picture—largely due to an indifferent DVD insert design—I found that I enjoyed Distant Thunder immensely. It won't be the greatest picture you've ever seen, and it may not embody a high degree of replay value, but it's definitely a good picture that makes for good viewing. At the very least, rent it; I believe you, too, will be pleasantly surprised.
Despite the lackluster effort put into this release, Distant Thunder is found not guilty of any wrongdoing. Paramount remains on parole, though, for their perpetual indifference towards their films and the consumers who would like to enjoy them to the fullest extent.
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