The rules of the dogfight were simple: everyone puts in fifty bucks. And the guy with the ugliest "date" wins.
River Phoenix is one of the Hollywood's saddest casualties. Ranking alongside Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, Phoenix died young in 1993 at the young age of 23 from a drug induced heart failure at actor Johnny Depp's infamous Viper Room in Los Angeles, CA. During his short acting career, River made numerous films, including the hit Stand By Me, The Mosquito Coast, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (both starring Harrison Ford), and director Nancy Savoca's romantic comedy Dogfight. Dogfight is now out of DVD care of Warner Home Entertainment.
Facts of the Case
It's 1963: Eddie Birdlace (Phoenix) and three of his buddies—Oakie (Anthony Clark, TV's Boston Common), Berzin (Richard Panebianco, Cadillac Man) and Benjamin (Mitchell Whitfield, Sgt. Bilko)—are Marines who have just landed in San Francisco looking for a good time. Unfortunately for some of the city's residents, a "good time" to these guys means a dogfight: each Marine puts fifty bucks in the pot and brings the ugliest date he can find to a local rented dance bar. Subsequently, the ranking corporals judge who the winner is (AKA the "ugliest date"). For Eddie his girl comes in the form of Rose (Lili Taylor, Mystic Pizza, I Shot Any Warhol), a frumpy waitress who lives with her mother, plays guitar, and has a passion for folk music. Unlike his comrades, Eddie begins to feel pangs of guilt over including Rose in their dastardly game—in fact, Eddie finds that he's actually taken a liking to Rose. And thus begins a night full of wonder and adventure as Eddie (who ships out to Vietnam in the morning) and Rose discover that love blossoms in the most unexpected of places.
For those of you searching for that one true love, Dogfight is a gentle reminder that it's what's on the inside that counts—clichéd, but true. Men are notorious animals that often want the most beautiful prize on the lot: the sexiest, most attractive woman they can wrangle. When we walk into a bar or a party, the first thing we look for is the best looking woman, then plot ways on how to talk to her (or, if you're even more piggish, how to get her into your bed). The lesson that Eddie Birdlace learns in Dogfight is one that all of us can take away: true love resides far below the skin.
Dogfight was directed by Nancy Sovoca, who also was a co-director on the TV film If These Walls Could Talk. Her style is lingering and thoughtful—not content with quick cuts and rapid scene transactions, Dogfight takes its time unfolding and introducing us to its characters. I was more than impressed with the late River Phoenix's portrayal of Eddie Birdlace, our hesitant protagonist. What begins as a self-centered boar turns into a thoughtful, poignant character. Eddie's conscious is what eventually turns him around—he realizes that no one wants to be thought of as ugly or dour. Though it takes him a while to come to this conclusion (he seems to have a real hard time saying he's sorry), his formation into a credible human being is believable and heartfelt. The final scene (which I won't give away) shows that Rose—and the Vietnam War—truly have had an affect on this once calloused individual.
Lili Tyler as Rose is nothing short of exceptional. Her doe eyed looks and serious whispers show that she is not a shy, ugly duckling after all. As the film continued I found myself more and more enamored with Tyler's character—it is a testament to her craft that she makes Rose more attractive as their night wears on. The rest of the cast lies on the periphery of the story—though they all do an admirable job (especially Anthony Clark in a memorable turn as a drunk buddy) and are needed in the context of the film, this is really Phoenix and Tyler's movie.
I really liked Dogfight. Though I didn't live through the 1960s, I have this feeling it's a somewhat accurate portrayal of the times and people. Dogfight didn't change the face of movies as we know them, but it did entertain backed by a strong message. There is nothing flashy or dazzling about it; this is just a small movie to savor, a romantic interlude that reminds us that we're all looking for someone to love us for who we are, not who we think we assume we're supposed to be.
Dogfight is presented in its original 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio. Once again, Warner has done a top notch job at making sure the colors and black levels are all solid. Though the image sometimes looks a bit dated (some haze interrupts the picture during a few brief moments), overall I was happy at how clean this transfer looked. No edge enhancement, digital artifacting, or other imperfections mar the image.
The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo Surround in both English and French. The sound mix doesn't quite match up with the video portions of the disc—though the mix is free of excessive hiss or distortion, overall it's flat and uninspired. The biggest boost comes in the from of the nostalgic music score by Gary U.S. Bonds, Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and others. Otherwise, this isn't a very exciting mix. Also included on this disc are English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
I applaud Warner Brothers for often taking the time to include at least one meaty extra feature on their smaller DVD releases. Though Dogfight wasn't a blockbuster film or exceptionally popular title, Warner has chosen to include a commentary track by director Nancy Savoca and producer Richard Guay. This is a very amiable, low-key commentary that features a fair amount of information about the film's inception (when Guay originally heard the film's title, he thought it was about canines brawling), the cast, and what the film meant to Guar and Savoca. Though this isn't a fall-down-laughing or emotionally stirring track, it does move along well with interesting tidbits throughout.
Also included on this disc are a few filmographies on selected cast and crew members, as well as a theatrical trailer presented in anamorphic widescreen.
There isn't anything overly exciting about Dogfight—it's just a nice, offbeat romance set to the tune of Vietnam and ugly women. I dug it, man. Groovy. Warner has done a decent job at making sure this disc is better-than-average.
This film is found not guilty on grounds of being entertaining and cute. Court dismissed!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary Track by Director Nancy Savoca and Producer Richard Guay
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