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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
Casualties of War (1989)

"This ain't the army. This ain't the army, Sarge."
- Private Eriksson (Michael J. Fox)

Review By: Dan Heaton   
Published: December 28, 2001

Stars: Michael J. Fox, Sean Penn
Other Stars: John C. Reilly, John Leguizamo, Don Harvey, Ving Rhames
Director: Brian DePalma

Manufacturer: DVDL
MPAA Rating: R for (violence, simulated sex, profanity)
Run Time: 01h:53m:28s
Release Date: December 11, 2001
UPC: 043396062924
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ A-AB+ B

DVD Review

Within the impressive array of Vietnam War films released in the 1980s and '90s, few entries are more disturbing than Brian DePalma's Casualties of War. Unlike other more rollicking pictures that display the intensity of the jungle atmosphere, this story takes a more personal look at the effects of the war. A band of five American soldiers embarks on a typical reconnaisance mission through the wilderness. However, this task becomes much different when they commit horrible atrocities on a young, innocent Vietnamese woman (Thuy Thu Lee). These acts reveal the vicious flipside of the Vietnam experience, where soldiers direct their anger and vengeance onto the local inhabitants.

Private Eriksson (Michael J. Fox) has spent only three weeks in Vietnam yet has already faced a life-threatening experience. During a battle with enemy forces, he finds himself trapped halfway into an underground tunnel. His legs dangle above the heads of young men determined to kill this American intruder. Luckily, the sergeant of his platoon arrives just in time and pulls him away from the incoming mortar fire. Eriksson's savior is Sergeant Meserve (Sean Penn)—a confident leader who draws faith from his men through his arrogance and unflinching hatred of the enemy. Meserve's best friend is Brownie (Erik King), an amiable jokester nearing the end of his service period. Unfortunately, the V.C. murders him during a sneak attack at an apparently harmless village. This pivotal action changes Meserve and pushes him further towards the realm of paranoia and cruelty.

The group of soldiers taking this fateful journey are an odd collection of individuals brought together by the war. Eriksson is a bright-eyed young man with a wife at home who has yet to develop any pure hatred of Vietnam. Hatcher (John C. Reilly) embodies the not-too-bright soldier with few emotions in either direction. After they've kidnapped the girl, he compares their actions to Genghis Khan and says it's "fantastic." Clark (Don Harvey) is an off-kilter individual who enjoys nothing more than destroying the enemy. Diaz (John Leguizamo) is the new member of the band, and he struggles with internal conflicts between his conscience and following the group. They're all led by Meserve, who labels the girl a V.C. suspect and plans to "interrogate" her. When Eriksson rebels and refuses to commit rape, he becomes isolated from everyone and puts his own life in danger.

Director Brian DePalma (The Untouchables, Dressed to Kill) is widely known for injecting loads of style into his films, with varying results. Although this story plays in a fairly straightforward manner, it still includes some inventive moments. During Eriksson's plight in the tunnel, the camera pans straight down from his body and reveals the danger hidden beneath the ground. DePalma also uses several extensive takes that allow the actors to jump into their roles. The camera avoids showing the worst moments of the terrible incident, and this omission adds to the disturbing nature of the scene.

Casualties of War places the audience directly into the war environment and grabs us during the chilling trek across the impressive landscape. The pace hardly slackens during the introductions, through the kidnapping and its ultimate resolution. However, the moments following this event fail to match the same intensity of the previous occurrences. This is a minor problem, though, and can be forgiven, considering the effectiveness of the earlier scenes. Nevertheless, I see no reason for the inclusion of the bookends back in America. Intended to provide a more upbeat ending, they feel out-of-place and unnecessary. This inclusion may slightly lessen the film, but it still provides a chilling, spell-binding experience.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Casualties of War features a pristine 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that ranks among the best I've seen in recent months. The gorgeous green landscape of Vietnam is captured in all its glory, with bright colors that explode from the screen. The images are strikingly clear and lack the usual minor appearances of grain that plague many transfers. Even the pitch-black night scenes remain clear and easily visible. The long shots of the Wolf base camp are especially impressive, with helicopters and jeeps roaming in front of the majestic scenery.

Image Transfer Grade: A


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: This release offers a 5.1-channel Dolby Digital transfer that presents clear audio throughout the feature. The battle scenes resound powerfully through the sound fieldand make the events more intimate. The melodic score also springs nicely from the speakers and adds to the foreign atmosphere. The only drawback is a limited use of the surround speakers, which would have enhanced the overall tone of the film. While they do come into play, this track falls a bit short of the more complex audio transfers on the market.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean , Thai with remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring Birdy, Bridge on the River Kwai
5 Deleted Scenes
2 Documentaries
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: Casualties of War includes two impressive documentaries that give a nice overview of this production. Eriksson's War features insightful comments from Michael J. Fox about his role and the experience of making the film. It's intriguing to hear him speak about his isolation from the other actors (especially Penn), which corresponded with his position in the story. Recorded recently, this feature runs for about 18 minutes and offers an interesting perspective about this picture.

The Making of Casualties of War spans 31 minutes and contains discussion from Brian DePalma and producer Art Linson. The director speaks about his own personal history of trying to avoid the draft, which influenced his view of this story. This documentary covers various aspects, including the casting, set design, and visual style. I found it surprising to note writer David Rabe's lack of enthusiasm about the upbeat ending. His feelings closely match my own thoughts about the awkward conclusion.

This release also includes five deleted scenes, several theatrical trailers, and selected filmographies for DePalma, Fox, and Penn. The extra moments all occur after the pivotal incident and mostly cover the interrogations. The only real noteworthy deletion was black & white footage of a military interview with Eriksson. During this scene, the officials twist his words and attempt to poke holes in his story. The trailers section contains widescreen previews for this film and The Bridge on the River Kwai, as well as a full-frame one for Birdy.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

Sean Penn's fiery performance carries Casualties of War and provides a human villain for this Vietnam film. While his actions are terrible, Meserve would almost certainly not be a killer without his experiences in this atmosphere. This story's success depends on viewers believing that a decent human being exists somewhere beneath his vicious exterior. Penn, Leguizamo, and the other actors reveal the slight scraps of humanity remaining within their characters, which leads to compelling cinema.


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