Try to rip him off and he'll rip you apart!
Robert Stone published his second novel Dog Soldiers in 1973, an honest and chilling tale set both in and out of Vietnam, a story of betrayal, drug smuggling, and an ironic sense of honor. Dog Soldiers went on to win the prestigious National Book Award, and in 1977 Stone sold the rights allowing director Karel Reisz (The French Lieutenant's Woman) to make the film. This film, while not a huge hit, would provide the foundation for recognition of Nick Nolte's considerable acting talents, and would lead to bigger, more productive roles in the future. That said, this is a fine film and realistically looks at the latter days of the war at home and in Vietnam and the life and times of the period. The moral ambiguity, intensity of the story, and a most memorable ending contribute to a worthwhile viewing experience. Don't expect nearly as glowing of praise from the DVD presentation, however.
Facts of the Case
Ray Hicks (Nolte) is an ex-Marine who served in Vietnam first in combat and now as a merchant seaman, which allows him to come and go between Vietnam and the US. This provides him a unique opportunity to smuggle things from Southeast Asia to home, but he's never done anything like the request from his journalist friend John Converse (Michael Moriarty, in another laid back but outstanding performance): bring 2 kilos of pure heroin from Vietnam and deliver it to his wife at home, and collect a cool 10 grand for his efforts. What seemed an easy way to make some quick cash just as quickly spirals out of control, as John Converse's wife Marge (Tuesday Weld) is attacked by two thugs (Richard Masur and Ray Sharkey) who want to steal the heroin for themselves and their corrupt cop boss (Anthony Zerbe). Hicks shows up in time to thwart the attack, but now they're on the run while John returns and is kidnapped to force Hicks's hand. A mountaintop commune will provide the backdrop for the stunning confrontation.
I've been a fan of Nick Nolte for quite some time, but this film came and went under my radar during its 1978 theatrical run. Being a fan of the '70s style of filmmaking (some claim the period to be a renaissance in the craft) I was eager to give it a spin. I was not disappointed. Few films look at this aspect of the war—those who sought to profit at home from their time there. Of course there have been many that dealt with covert activities during the war, but it didn't look at things from the viewpoint of an individual soldier or person. The story is engaging, even though you quickly realize there are no true heroes; even our protagonist begins the film by agreeing to smuggle heroin. That the film deals with honor and heroism even from such poor beginnings is a high mark among several positive aspects.
Nick Nolte is no stranger to roles as a loner caught up in unusual circumstances, and his portrayal of Hicks is both brilliant and credible. He brings the multi-faceted nature of the character from the book and screenplay (which has Robert Stone's direct involvement) to the screen, and disappears within it. Backing him up are also excellent performances by Michael Moriarty and Tuesday Weld, who especially captures the essence of the time period. Even the villains are not given short shrift; I've never seen Richard Masur so menacing. Ray Sharkey also adds a nice touch and is perhaps even stronger, though he has more experience with this type of character.
The story keeps up its intensity despite shifting to more quiet moments between Nolte and Weld as they flee their attackers. There are no loose ends left flapping in the breeze as the story ties things together nicely. It is the final act that really sells the film. The intensity of the conflict, the use of terrain and real military thought make what could have been a typical hero/villain confrontation far better than it could have been, and as I said, makes for one of the more memorable endings I've ever seen. This is a film that deserves seeing, though don't expect something akin to the explosion laden action films of today.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I do have a quibble with the film, however. For reasons that sound more like marketing than to benefit the film itself, the title was changed from "Dog Soldiers" to "Who'll Stop the Rain," presumably so they could capitalize on the license of the song and other Creedence Clearwater Revival tunes in the soundtrack. When you hear the song during the film it feels forced rather than as a natural part of the film, mostly due to the title. It has no bearing on the film; only thrown in as a song heard on the radio. That doesn't seem like a good way to determine the film title.
Finally I get to the DVD presentation. Who'll Stop the Rain has been released as part of MGM's "Contemporary Classics" collection, in 1.85:1 letterboxed aspect ratio. The transfer is non-anamorphic, which adds to my belief that this is a direct port of the laserdisc transfer. The image is overly soft, even hazy, and is as artifact ridden as anything I've seen since the early days of the format. Moiré patterns, edge enhancement issues, jagged edges…you name it, I saw it. Black levels and shadow detail are sub-par as well. I do make some allowances for the age of the film and the visual style in general of '70s filmmaking, but this is a big notch below the bar we've come to expect from the format. It's not unwatchable, but it's not good. We know MGM is capable of doing great work when they want to, but unfortunately, they keep reinforcing their "quantity over quality" reputation when they release something like this.
The sound is two-channel mono, or "big fat mono" as home theater enthusiasts call it, and should be listened to in Pro-Logic to escape the odd separation that occurs otherwise. The sound is adequate at best, with the fidelity issues common to dated mono tracks. Bass response is nearly non-existent, and the high end has a somewhat harsh quality. Considering there are gunfights and such in the film these limitations become more obvious. Fortunately the dialogue is always clear and intelligible. A non-anamorphic widescreen trailer is the only extra, which is typical for MGM catalog titles. The film deserved more.
Due to the strength of the film and the wonderful performances, I recommend the film highly. Who'll Stop the Rain is an engaging and exciting adventure. Due to the poor treatment of the film on DVD, I can only recommend a rental.
MGM is found guilty of giving short shrift to their catalog titles in general, and this one in particular. This film deserved better treatment than many modern films, and it was not forthcoming.
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