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Tigerland (2000)

Reviewed By Stephen Groenewegen
Posted 07/09/01 13:04:52

"Square Pegs"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Tigerland is a Vietnam War horror theme park; the simulation jungle training camp where American enlisted and drafted soldiers were sent a week before shipping out. It's also the name of Joel Schumacher's tough new film about the boot camp experience.

Tigerland begins with the arrival of a new company of trainees at Fort Polk, Louisiana, a few weeks earlier. Private Roland Bozz (a star-making performance from relative newcomer Colin Farrell) joins the company direct from the stockade. He's the defiant square peg to the army's round hole. Bozz is the Montgomery Clift character from those 1950s boot camp movies (From Here to Eternity, The Young Lions) - the butt of punishments and humiliation for the army superiors - infused with 1960s rebelliousness (Tigerland is set in 1971). Like Clift, who was always befriended by musician-actors (Frank Sinatra in Eternity, Dean Martin in Lions), Bozz quickly gains a pal - the amiable Paxton (Matt Davis), who's enlisted because he thinks the experience will give him the raw material for a novel. Bozz also makes an enemy of the redneck Wilson (Shea Whigham), who longs for the fighting to start.

The sequences in Fort Polk nicely establish the company's main characters, and are unpredictable since we're never sure what aspect of training we'll see next. Schumacher also inserts the film's nastiest scene relatively early (the suggested administering of an electric shock to a soldier's testicles) to let us know that anything could happen.

The script (by Ross Klavan and Michael McGruther, based loosely on Klavan's infantry training at Tigerland in 1971) employs one-on-one conversations with Bozz to establish the soldiers' backgrounds and personalities. Although repetitive, this device works because Bozz's knowledge of army regulations makes him ideal for helping disillusioned trainees out of the army. Joel Schumacher (notorious for slick and glossy blockbusters like Batman and Robin and A Time to Kill) keeps the direction intimate and Matthew Libatique's hand-held camera work gives Tigerland a home-movie feel.

Libatique's cinematography (Tigerland followed his mesmerising work on Requiem for a Dream) becomes even grainier during the last portion of the film, after the trainees enter Tigerland (which ingeniously allows an American film to legitimately conjure up Vietnam without leaving the country). The army jacks up the shock tactics to prepare these recruits for the real thing - they get an average one hour's sleep per night, they're drilled by officers just back from the war, and they pretend to be Vietnamese villagers for the purpose of simulated raids.

This final act evokes memories of Platoon - with the weak everyman (Paxton becomes Platoon's Charlie Sheen character) caught between good (Bozz, Willem Dafoe) and evil (Wilson, Tom Berenger). The resolution of the conflict is neat, and at odds with the shooting style, which gets progressively rougher. Although the farewell scene at the end is genuinely moving, the finish isn't helped by a purple voiceover from one of the
characters.

The documentary style clearly reveals the brutality of army life for these trainees. But Bozz's subversion is undermined by what happens to him. The film sides with the bullying superiors, bellowing about sorting the men from the boys. Tigerland is really an initiation movie, with tension surrounding who makes it (who gets through training) and who fails, and why.

The ensemble of young actors is put through their paces convincingly by Schumacher. Apparently the actors submitted to a bootcamp of their own during rehearsals (which seems to be the norm for Hollywood army films these days) to increase their fitness and fierceness, which is incongruous at the start when they're supposed to be commencing training. I liked Russell Richardson's Johnson, who was sympathetic to Bozz and not afraid to stand up for the other black trainees. Unfortunately, Davis's Paxton has to become weaker (and blander) for the sake of the plot, just as Whigham's Wilson becomes increasingly wide-eyed and psychotic.

It's terrific to see a film-maker like Schumacher, who could have comfortably continued repeating himself in big-budget studio projects, taking risks. Tigerland also stands as one of the first American films released here to be inspired by the Danish Dogme '95 manifesto of predominantly filming with natural sound and light, hand-held cameras and improvised dialogue.

On the strength of his first leading film role, Irish actor Colin Farrell looks to become a major star. He brings to the part of Bozz a convincing Texan manner, obvious good looks and acting talent, charisma and, occasionally, something of Montgomery Clift's loner vulnerability. It's exciting to see such a promising new talent emerge on the screen.

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