Monday 24 October 2011

Movie Review: Heartbreak Ridge (1986)

A character study movie requires a multi-faceted personality with subtleties of behaviour and perhaps some hidden secrets that can be probed for a couple of hours. Heartbreak Ridge focuses on Thomas Highway, an old-school Gunnery Sergeant with the Marine Corps who is as old fashioned and utterly predictable as they come. Highway would be the secondary role in most other war movies; building a story entirely around him is the equivalent of eating the icing in the absence of a cake.

Although he is an entertaining character, everything we need to know about Highway (Clint Eastwood, who also directs) we find out in the first 10 minutes. Battle hardened, frequently drunk, divorced, believes in the traditional military values, does not suffer fools, an expert in hand-to-hand combat, and quick with the one-liners, mostly to do with the hurt that he will lay on the next person to sneer in his face.

The problem is that the film has another two hours to kill, and spends the time entrenched in cliché land as Highway trains a group of misfits in a recon unit, with scenes alternating between poorly conceived comedy, macho fist fights to excite the young adolescents, and utter disrespect for the military. By the time the film completes it's depiction of the 1983 United States invasion of the tiny island of Grenada (population: 100,000), a war as unnecessary as this movie, the snarly line of dialogue about "ripping your head off and crapping down the hole" in all its variants has been repeated about a dozen times. Or so it feels.

Despite the character offering nothing new, Clint Eastwood is the only thing worth watching in Heartbreak Ridge, and he makes a valiant attempt to save the movie, his "Gunny" Highway hard as nails, spitting bullets, and unleashing equal torrents of hatred at his untested superiors and his slacker subordinates. There are a few clever moments, such as Highway's obsession with reading women's magazines to improve his soft side, and the film gains a few points for recreating the true story of American soldiers pinned by enemy fire during the Grenada invasion using a credit card to call collect for fire support.

Unfortunately the supporting roles are poorly developed, Marsha Mason suffering the most as Highway's ex-wife, with the script never bothering to reveal what she ever saw in the man nor shedding any light as to why she would ever consider going back to him. Mario Van Peebles is a laughably unreal wannabe guitar rock star Marine, and Everett McGill as Highway's commanding officer and chief nemesis is as stiff as a target board at the far end of the firing range.

In Clint Eastwood's stellar career as both actor and director, Heartbreak Ridge is a boorish misfire.

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