Director Joel Schumacher is known more for his ability to make the big, booming, heartless blockbuster than a documentary-like portrayal of a true story (sort of). But in a departure from his usual, Schumacher turns in a winner with a vastly different style. Telling the story of an American platoon of soldiers training at Fort Polk in Louisiana, Tigerland feels like a documentary made in the 1970s. He films with handi-cams that does produce some stomach-turning editing -- hold the camera steady for God's sake! -- but also uses a filter that gives the movie a retro, even fuzzy look at times. The end result though is that you feel like you're there with the soldiers as they struggle with the reality that in a few short weeks they'll be fighting in Vietnam.
It's 1971 at Fort Polk in Louisiana, and a platoon of American soldiers is just eight quick weeks away from being shipped to Vietnam. The officers and NCOs push them to their limits to prepare them for the hell they will fight with in Vietnam, but nothing can really prepare them for what awaits. Among this platoon is Jim Paxton (Matthew Davis), a Northern college student who volunteered in the army where most were drafted, and Roland Bozz (Colin Farrell), a rebellious Texan doing everything he can to get kicked out of the army. The two very different soldiers have a completely opposite viewpoint on the war, but they share a common goal in just wanting to survive. But as big a troublemaker as he is, Bozz is seen by his superiors as an ideal leader. Looming ahead though is a week-long trek to Tigerland, a camp meant to simulate Vietnam and all its horrors.
First off, this is not a Vietnam movie like Platoon or Apocalypse Movie where combat and jungle fighting dominate the story. Tigerland is about the training plain and simple. Vietnam is only an idea, a place none of these young men have ever been yet. It's a refreshing change of pace though because the Viet Cong and NVA aren't the enemies here. It is the infighting that takes place among a melting pot of American soldiers from a laundry list of backgrounds and experiences. These are 18 and 19 year old kids getting ready to fight in a very unpopular war and are very much aware of that. By 1971, the backing of the war had taken a huge turn to the negative in public sentiment. Going to fight a lost war where chances of survival are slim? I'd be pissed too.
I was worried early on that the pretentious, cliche-filled story was going to be more than a little boring to watch...again. I'd seen this movie before. Thankfully, Schumacher establishes all these well-worn, known cliches and builds on them. We see characters that we know from other movies, but he doesn't stop there, allowing us to get to know these individuals rather than resting on the audience being comfortable with what they've seen before. Some of the supporting characters include Thomas Guiry as Pvt. Cantwell, a father of four with a schizophrenic wife, Clifton Collins Jr. as Miter, the appointed platoon guide who begins to crumble under the pressure, Shea Whigham as Pvt. Wilson, a soldier dripping with hate, and Russell Richardson as Pvt. Johnson. The training officer and commanders include Nick Searcy, Afemo Omilami, and James MacDonald.
Still a relative unknown in the United States when he made this movie, Colin Farrell is the hands down breakout star. I've long been a fan of Farrell as an actor, but this might be his part overall role. He creates a mess of a character in Roland Bozz, a soldier who you find yourself rooting for almost in spite of him at times. A loner, a rebel, Bozz does anything he can to fight the system and push the limits. He is an idealist who opposes the war but not for anything far-flung ideas or principles. He just thinks it's wrong what one human being can do to another. Doing his best to get kicked out of the army, Bozz ends up getting a leadership role. All his objections aside, Bozz is a natural leader who gains the respect of his fellow trainees, but that doesn't mean he's still not looking for an out. His character gets all twisted around into making decisions that obviously impact him, but all those around him.
The highlight of the movie was the last 25-30 minutes, the actual trip into Tigerland, a portion of the Louisiana swamp serving as a testing ground for what Vietnam will be like. The trainers are recent vets of Vietnam -- Cole Hauser impresses as a sergeant just days removed from a tour -- who know they're fighting a losing battle but nonetheless have a job to do in training these green soldiers. The movie's more startling moments come to the forefront here as the trainees are pushed to their limits and respond accordingly. The ending does supply a bit of a surprise and is both appropriate and frustrating. You'd like closure as to what happens, but it's just not in the cards.
Tigerland <---trailer (2000): *** 1/2 /****