Review: Heartbreak Ridge
Clint Eastwood is Gunnery Sgt. Highway, a brawling hard-arse with an insubordinate streak a mile long and an extreme lack of tolerance for fools and pencil-pushing bureaucrats. He’s also a bit too long in the tooth, but the Marine brass just can’t seem to convince ‘Gunny’ Highway to retire. Sent back to his old stomping grounds, he’s given a dressing down by – you guessed it – a gruff, but stuffed shirt Major named Powers (Mean-faced, mean-voiced Everett McGill), and a dick-measuring contest between the two ensues. Highway gets put in charge of a platoon of the lowest of the lowly Gomer Pyle recruits, including an idiot wannabe ‘rap-rock’ musician named ‘Stitch’ Jones (Mario Van Peebles), and they are the constant bane of each other’s existence. Meanwhile, Highway tries to worm his way back into the heart of old flame and cocktail waitress Aggie (the charming Marsha Mason), who has taken up with antagonising bully boy Roy (Bo Svenson). Arlen Dean Snyder plays Highway’s one friend in the brass, a Sergeant-Major, whilst Moses Gunn plays a butt-kissing Staff Sergeant, Boyd Gaines is a pencil-pushing but well-meaning Lieutenant, and Peter Jason plays another Major. Eileen Heckart plays a sympathetic barmaid, whilst the late Tom Villard is one of the recruits. Nicholas Worth from “Darkman” can be seen early on getting his arse handed to him by Highway.
Clint Eastwood has directed some good-to-very good films over the years, especially his excellent directorial debut “Play Misty for Me” (the best film of its type by far) and the dark and brooding “Mystic River”. He has also given some good performances over the years whether directed by himself or others, especially “Escape From Alcatraz”, “Million Dollar Baby”, “Gran Torino”, “White Hunter, Black Heart”, Sergio Leone’s “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” (The best film he’s ever been in), and the superb Wolfgang Petersen thriller “In the Line of Fire”. He has however, directed and/or acted in a lot of absolute crap as well, especially “The Rookie”, “City Heat”, “Absolute Power”, “The Eiger Sanction”, “Tightrope”, and “Sudden Impact”. Four of those crapfests were made from 1980-1990, and you can also add this cornball 1986 military flick from the director-star to the list of unbearable turds in that period. Scripted by James Carabatsos (“Hamburger Hill”, another military film), it’s inexplicably popular with some critics and audiences, I think it’s a boring, crass, hopelessly outdated film that poor Marsha Mason is much too good for. I’ve never understood the appeal of this one. Your mileage may differ depending on your fondness for 80s-era Clint.
From moment one, Eastwood’s performance is heavy-handed and unconvincing. About the only thing I can say for him is that although a little too old for the part, he’s in great physical shape. The problem is we have Clint Eastwood doing a Clint Eastwood imitation, and it’s far too heavy-handed and corny in a film that also has Mario Van Peebles doing a ham-fisted mixture of Eddie Murphy, Prince, and Steve Guttenberg in the “Police Academy” films. Eastwood even gets a “Dirty Harry” moment talking about the AK-47. Sheesh. Playing a rock-rap (?) wannabe star, Van Peebles gives a performance that suggests he took music and fashion tips from a 50ish white guy who likes soft jazz and knows nothing about 80s popular music. Whether it’s Eastwood, Carabatsos, Van Peebles, or all three, someone here has no idea what either rock or rap are, let alone what a credible combination of the two is like (personally I think even most of the best attempts at a rock-rap hybrid are awkward at the very least unless you count Faith No More, Living Colour, and Rage Against the Machine in that category). Or they just didn’t care, perhaps. Van Peebles has always been a subpar actor in my view, and with Clint at his absolute worst, they’re a deadly twosome in a film that also isn’t anywhere near funny enough to offer the excuse that they’re meant to be going for laughs here. Hell, even then this isn’t a patch on “Biloxi Blues”. At any rate, Van Peebles is idiotic and irritating from start to finish, and never remotely credible as anyone from the planet Earth. In fact, his character’s entire presence here makes little sense. The sloppy storytelling somehow has him being allowed to play gigs at night whilst he’s in military training during the day time. And I never quite worked out how or why he was in the military to begin with, if he’s also hoping to be a great music star.
About the only thing I can say something nice about here is that some of the supporting performances are solid. Marsha Mason is all class as Eastwood’s love interest and would be a much more interesting character to centre a film around. She’s the closest thing to be believable human being here in this superficial nonsense. John Carpenter’s favourite bit player Peter Jason has one of his best cameos as a military hard arse type, and Arlen Dean Snyder is entertaining and lively as Eastwood’ military buddy. Everett McGill is stone-faced as usual, but playing a humourless antagonist to Eastwood allows that to work in his favour (“Under Siege 2” is the best performance of his not terribly stellar career). Perhaps part of the reason for Eastwood’s hammy performance and overdone manly man voice is because the perfectly cast McGill does it so effortlessly that Clint felt he had to overcompensate. Sadly, the very fine Moses Gunn is saddled with a useless arse-kissing officer role, and whilst fairly likeable, Boyd Gaines’ character is somewhere in between Protcter in the “Police Academy” films and Radar O’Reilly on “*M*A*S*H”, but a lot less funny. Veteran B-grade action man Bo Svenson is well-cast in a thankless, thuggish role that (like the early Nicholas Worth cameo) only serves to show how uber-manly the director-star is.
Eastwood the director works at a snail’s pace, he only meets his recruits at the 20 minute mark. Since it’s such utterly unconvincing nonsense from the outset, by the time the recruits finally see real action you don’t buy it in the least. There’s no sense of tension, drama, or believable stakes because you’re already taken out of the whole experience. Meanwhile, I normally try to view a film for the period in which it was made, and not harp on too much about elements that have dated. However, even if we didn’t have the presence of gay actor Tom Villard (who sadly passed away of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1994) as one of the recruits, all of the homophobic insults Eastwood hurls at just about everybody would still be extremely crass, heavy-handed, and too much to be remotely believable, let alone comfortable. Oh, I’m quite sure there was plenty of homophobic (and certainly emasculating) insults hurled by many a drill sergeant, and one probably needs to provide a little of that to be realistic. However, the sheer volume of it in one film is just stupid overkill (The U.S. Marines withdrew official support for the film due to the language, apparently).
Terrible military flick that mostly serves to stroke the director-star’s big manly man ego. Ridiculous performances by Eastwood and Van Peebles, heavy-handed dialogue, sloppy and clichéd storytelling, zero entertainment. Two hours of Clint being the manliest man who ever manned men, dealing with idiots who aren’t manly men even when they sound like Everett McGill. Eastwood’s performance is an unfunny joke, Mario Van Peebles is an embarrassing try-hard playing an even more embarrassing try-hard, and Marsha Mason can’t save it all on her own. Easily one of Eastwood’s worst and most horribly dated films from a not very good decade for the man. He was much more interesting in the decades before and after this film, both as an actor and director. One-note and off-key, some people seem to love it, though and apparently real-life Marines (despite the lack of ‘official’ support for the film) have vouched for its authenticity. Yikes to that.