It’s time to declare a cinematic peace treaty. Hollywood’s recent trips to the battlefield — from the preposterous “Behind Enemy Lines” to the chilly, calculated “Black Hawk Down” — have failed to pay homage to former heroes who fought valiantly. Instead, the flashy exercises only serve as test-drives for the latest explosive device, reducing the genre to boys playing with toys.
The latest, writer/director Randall Wallace’s film adaptation of the N.Y. Times best seller, “”We Were Soldiers Once … And Young,”" edits the book’s title, but maintains enough of its gore. Based on the true story of our armed forces’ ill-fated invasion of Vietnam’s Ia Drang Valley, “Soldiers” stars Mel Gibson as Lt. Col. Hal Moore, a career officer and father of what seems like a baker’s dozen who’s assigned to lead and train the military’s “”new cavalry,”" which rides helicopters instead of horses and brandishes M16s in place of 12inch swords.Moore’s troops, however, would be hard pressed to buy alcohol without proper ID, and the drinking age in those days was 18. So the man wisely surrounds himself with experienced warriors, including the tough-as-nails Sgt.-Maj. Basil Plumley (Sam Elliott) and the roughneck but reliable chopper pilot, Maj. Bruce Crandall (Greg Kinnear). Elliott gets the film’s best line. When asked by Moore if he’d care to arm himself with a newfangled M16 rifle before entering battle, Plumley spits, “”If the time comes I need one, there’ll be plenty on the floor.”"Finally, orders are handed down, and Moore learns his men will see combat. He can’t mask the dread on his face. Though physically ready, Moore’s men will never be mentally prepared, and their leader knows this. Though he desperately wants to shelter them from their fate, all he can do is matter-of-factly state, “”We’re landing under fire. Men will die.”" Polar opposite leaders emerge from Moore’s platoon, one aggressive (Mark Blucas), one (Chris Klein) sensitive. Initially, both achieve their desired results, though these tactics seem frivolous on the anarchic battlefield. But in the midst of the chaos, it’s Gibson who stands tallest. He is a calming presence in an extremely gory, violent endurance of slaughter. Like its grisly counterpart, “Black Hawk Down,” Wallace’s battlefield epic is ultimately about outnumbered U.S. troops. In contrast to “Black Hawk,” however, “Soldiers” endears us to the men on the field. The film uses Catholicism as a window into Moore, as well as select few of his men. The desired result is that we’ll squirm uncomfortably in our seats as these men are slaughtered. Mission accomplished.And while Wallace displays skill with his camera placement in select scenes, its in the multiple battle sequences where he goes horribly wrong, proving the man can write a good fight (“Braveheart”), but he certainly can’t shoot one. The sadistic scenes are endless loops of fiery explosions and screaming bullets ripping into unidentified bodies. Wallace is mesmerized by the sight of men getting shot, whether in the shoulder, the back, the head … doesn’t matter, as long as they’re running when it happens, and they immediately crumple when hit. “Soldier” does pause frequently to remind us what the men overseas are fighting for, namely their families back home. Unfortunately, these heavy-handed scenes appear to be lifted from the unwritten “”Chicken Soup For The Soldier’s Soul.”" While I don’t doubt the legitimacy of wives awaiting word from their men, a scene of Moore’s stoic wife (Madeleine Stowe) and a fresh-faced military spouse (Kerri Russell) delivering death notices felt dishonest and insincere. Even in our pro-America, post-9/11 times, “Soldiers” arrives at a bad time. I may be alone here, but I’ve had my fill of combat films whose sole purpose is to show us how brutal war can be. By now, we know. We see it every day, on CNN, MSNBC and at the local AMC. So I’m waving my white flag. I’m done. I surrender.Grade: CBy Sean O’ConnellMarch 1, 2002