Tag Archives: Sean Penn

Casualties of War (1989)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: He witnesses a rape.

Based on an actual incident that occurred on November 19, 1966 the story centers around five members of an American squadron during the Vietnam War where the pressures and ugliness of battle send their leader, Sergeant Tony Meserve (Sean Penn) over-the-edge. When his squad gets denied leave he decides to have his men kidnap a Vietnamese girl named Oanh (Thuy Thu Le) who is then raped by the four of them while one, Eriksson (Michael J. Fox) refuses.  The young woman is eventually killed and her lifeless body left in a field. When the men return to their base Eriksson tries to report the crime, but finds stiff resistance.

This same incident was used as the basis for another film called The Visitors, which came out 17 years earlier. That movie took a different approach as it hypothesized what would’ve happened once the men returned from doing prison time and came for a ‘visit’ to the man’s home who had turned them in. That film suffered from a lack of a budget, but still managed to have a little more tension and impact than this one. This version takes way too long to play itself out. The audience knows where it’s headed right from the start and thus makes it almost excruciating to have to sit through.

The film would’ve worked better had the story been told in a fragmented style. The horror of the situation gets lost by the plodding narrative that overplays the story’s shock element and seems to take an almost sick delight in dragging out the whole kidnap/rape sequence until it gets agonizing and even tedious.

The idea that Eriksson would mentally be going back through this whole situation while he dreams it during a nap on a bus isn’t believable. The story is supposedly told as a flashback, but people dream in a more surreal, nonlinear way that wouldn’t painstakingly go back through every detail that had occurred to them in real-life. Also, people tend to repress unpleasant experiences that they’ve had. At times certain bits and pieces of it may come to the surface, but most of it would be locked away in the person’s subconscious, which is why the fragmented approach would’ve made more sense because we would’ve seen things in the exact same way that they were being played out in Eriksson’s head.

Fox is miscast and looks more like Marty McFly stuck in a time warp and involved in a situation he has no business being in. His character’s upbeat disposition makes him seem like he’s in some sort of invisible bubble that allows him not to be affected by the horrors of war even though it has clearly taken its toll on everyone else around him.  The character is also a bit too passive and does little to prevent the rape from occurring, which will make some viewers feel that he is cowardly.

Although his character is a bit over-the-top Penn gives a strong and effective performance and the main reason if any to watch the film. John Leguizamo is also good as a shy, quiet type that initially refrains from wanting to take part in the crime only to ultimately cave to peer pressure.

The on-location shooting done in Thailand is good and I liked the way director Brian De Palma uses the point-of-view effect particularly when the men go around the sleeping village looking for a victim to choose, but ultimately the film fails to elicit much of an emotional effect. The quasi, tacked-on ‘uplifting’ ending in which a stranger tells Eriksson to simply ‘let go’ of his horrible memories and in essence ‘move on’ from it is terribly contrived as there are certain experiences one can’t simply leave behind, which only helps to solidify how shallow this potentially penetrating drama really is.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: August 18, 1989

Runtime: 1Hour 59Minutes (Director’s Cut)

Rated R

Director: Brian De Palma

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube