A hero should never have to stand alone.
Timing couldn't be worse…or better depending on your point of view, for this film to come out on DVD. On the heels of the terrorist attack on the USS Cole refueling in Yemen comes a film about trouble at an American Embassy in Yemen. What starts out as an action picture in Vietnam and a tough mission in the Middle East devolves into a courtroom drama for the final two acts. Good performances by Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson make up for a lot of weaknesses in a muddled story, for a merely average film. However, Paramount has done a fine job with the DVD with a fine transfer, sound, and extra content.
Facts of the Case
Vietnam: 1968. Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson) and his friend Hays Hodges (Tommy Lee Jones) are especially old looking young soldiers out on patrol. When things go badly, a tough call from Childers saves Hodges life, but leaves him relegated to desk duty. Hodges goes on to become a military lawyer while Childers stays in combat command as both rise to the rank of Colonel.
In modern day, the embassy in Yemen is under siege and Colonel Childers is picked to lead the marine mission to guard, and if necessary evacuate the ambassador and other personnel. Things go badly quickly and after getting the ambassador out by helicopter has to make a fateful decision. A decision that will result in examination of the Rules of Engagement; a set of rules by which war becomes something to be fought from a book. When an evil National Security advisor looks for a scapegoat and picks Childers, his only hope is to be vindicated in court with the help of his old friend Hodges. From the battlements to the courtroom the film moves toward its climax as the verdict is read.
The film had all the makings of a really taut drama, and elements of a nice action piece, but the combination doesn't quite add up. However, the parts by themselves work extremely well. The scenes at the embassy in Yemen have an in-your-face feel that almost makes you part of the battle. You can easily see the quandary that Childers is in, and think him heroic, at least until you see the results. You know you don't know the whole story, but things do not look good for our hero.
As a courtroom drama the film draws you in as well, with all those dramatic moments on the stand and from the lawyers you would expect. Certainly Tommy Lee Jones held up his end as the defense lawyer and old friend, making do without the time and legal avenues that would be available in a civilian courtroom.
Certainly there are plenty of supporting players, but this is a Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones show, and they are outstanding in their roles and characters. Their performances are first rate. Jackson especially wears the uniform of a Marine Colonel well and portrays the sense of honor and duty needed for the role.
The film is beautifully shot and directed by William Friedkin, who is certainly no slouch with films like The French Connection and The Exorcist under his belt. His sense of pacing and timing was excellent most of the time.
Paramount has outdone themselves with a beautiful 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer. Colors spring to life in some scenes and are more somber in others, but the detail level is terrific, without need for edge enhancement. Flesh tones are dead on and any complaints would be minor at best. A beautiful picture; even from Paramount who usually does superior work with their anamorphic transfers.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is reference quality. During the battle scenes the mix is extremely aggressive, putting you in the middle of the battle as realistic sounding gunfire comes from every angle. The dynamic range is superb, with plenty for your subwoofer to do. The helicopter rotor sounds are as realistically portrayed as I have ever heard. Dialogue does not suffer from the abundance of sound effects and is still able to be heard above the din. Excellent work.
The extra content is fairly standard but satisfying. First is "A Look Inside," which is 13 minutes of interviews describing how the film got made and a lot of the usual mutual admiration society. Next is the Behind the Scenes featurette, which is 23 minutes of fairly in depth coverage of how the film was made, along with the locations used. The biggest bonus is the feature length commentary track with director William Friedkin. The track is a mixed bag; when Friedkin talks he is focused and provides a lot of information, along with his own perceptions about the film. Other times he stops talking for periods of time which can add an element of tedium, reinforced by the lack of the main soundtrack coming up to fill in the gaps. Still, for Paramount this is good for bonus features; they are one of the last studios to really come on board for extra content.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There was enough to like in the film that I was disappointed that when taken as a whole it does not work as well. I have three main complaints about the film itself. First, starting out with the Vietnam sequence was fine, though it added another element to muddle the story later. The problem with the Vietnam sequence was that you simply could not make Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones look 30 years younger, no matter how they tried. Finding younger actors or finding a way to get the exposition without them would have helped the film, and the latter might have saved the film some running time which seemed a little long.
My second complaint was the needless addition of a conventional villain into the story. Bruce Greenwood does a fine job at playing the scheming bureaucrat with a heart of stone, but again this was a needless muddle. The exploration of where the rulebook for warfare leaves off and reacting to the situation in the field was interesting enough without adding in some cookie cutter villain to leave our hero hanging.
Next are parts of the courtroom scene and how they play into the film as a whole. A subplot about how Col. Hodges is a second rate lawyer is expressed, but he rises to the occasion and does his job beautifully and convincingly. Not a second rate lawyer. So that subplot was another needless complication. Yet another is the insertion of Ben Kingsley and Anne Archer as the ambassador and his wife who were saved. A subplot where you thought they might be the twist to help Childers later gets left hanging. A waste of two fine actors who got short shrift. Last and perhaps the biggest problem with the film is the ending, which is nearly anticlimactic. Yes, there is the suspense of the verdict, but what about our villain and the other threads left hanging about? Left to text rolling at the end. The end is ultimately unsatisfactory and if fixed by itself could have saved the film.
Despite these several elements which I felt dragged out the film, made it too complicated, and left me feeling unsatisfied at the end, I still enjoyed the parts that did work enough to give it a conditional recommendation. Certainly the disc needs no reservations against it. If you liked the film you'll be happy with the disc. If you haven't seen the film perhaps you should rent it before buying, because my criteria for purchase includes having a desire to watch a film more than once.
It's hard to render judgment here. The film is acquitted despite some misgivings, but the fine technical qualities of the picture and sound on the disc gain my admiration. Paramount is absolutely exonerated.
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