Thursday, October 9, 2014

Heartbreak Ridge (2010)

Heartbreak RidgeWhen this film came out, aeons ago, a sneering newspaper reviewer called it an the utltimate "OC" movie, "OC" meaning "of course." He was referring to the fact that there isn't a single character or situation in "Heartbreak Ridge" that could be called remotely original -it's basically a 1980s version of every 1940s, '50s, & '60s war movie you ever saw. His evidence:

1 crusty yet somehow loveable sergeant

2 crusty yet somehow loveable sidekick

3 pencil-pushing jerk senior officer

4 green platoon leader

5 woman from past

6 bumbling soldier who needs to grow up

7 assorted Cental Casting platoon members

8 generic training sequences

9 generic trial by fire

10 predictable ending

All this is completely true. I just don't care. The stupid reviewer was too busy being smug to understand that the reason this story has been told so many times is because it is a classic, and classics are timeless. Especially under the tender care of Clint "Shoot First, Ask Questions Never" Eastwood.

"Ridge" is the story of Tom Highway (as in "My Way Or The..."), a bullet-scarred, gravelly-voiced Marine sergeant who has fought in three wars, won a bucketfull of medals, and is now facing mandatory retirement. Ol' Gunny Highway ain't takin' it too well, either -he drinks, fights with the cops, and gets yelled at by his superiors. Banished to a supply billet, all he yearns for is one last chance to lead combat troops, and before you can say "of course," he's packed off to his old unit -you know, the same one he was kicked out of years before, for insubordination and conduct unbecoming (you know, the usual Eastwood Offences).

Of course, his old unit is run by an unblooded, chin-thrusting martinet named Powers, who is described at one point in the film as being the sort who consults the manual before he mounts his old lady. Powers hates Highway and wants to run him out of the Corps, so he saddles him with a platoon of losers and ungovernable misfits run by a nerdy and clueless lieutenant. Chief among these dolts is the slick-talking Corporal Stitch Jones, played with glib hustla's charm by Mario Van Peebles.

Of course, Highway's embittered yet sexy ex-wife is still in town, and of course, Highway is still in love with her, in his foul-mouthed way. When he's not getting shot down by his ex, Highway guzzles beer and reminisces with his old war buddy, Sgt Major Choozoo, who's even more foul-mouthed than Highway. There's even a foul-mouthed female bartender who sits around pouring beers and dispensing crusty Corps wisdom. Honestly, this movie has the best cursing I've ever heard.

Of course, Highway's tough love approach is a hard swallow for everybody. Powers is after his stripes, his ex-wife's boyfriend (the guy who played Buford Pusser in the latter two entires in the "Walking Tall" movie series) wants to clean his clock, and his Marines wish he would just seize up and die like an old lawnmower. Little do they know that his brutal regimen will one day save their lives! For unbeknownst to all, the villainous Fidel Castro has ordered his military to seize power on the tiny Caribe resort island of Grenada, which houses lots of drunken American medical students. President Reagan ain't takin' this too well, so before you can say "Semper Fi" Highway and company are choppering off to put theory into practice and kick communist butt.

Do Highway's boys perform up to spec? Will Powers get his commupance? Will the sexy ex-wife be waiting when and if Highway returns? Of course, of course, and of course. But who cares? This movie is hilarious and hugely entertaining. Eastwood's over-the-top alpha-male performance is about as subtle as a bullet to the solar plexus, but it's great fun. So is the glaring villainy of Powers, the charming nerdiness of Ring, the slick charm of Jones, and the crusty bulldog loyalty of Choozoo. These cliched characters are like old friends.

"Ridge" has some funny trivia attached to it. Originally, it was written for an army character, but it seems the army wanted to make the movie a commercial for all its latest weaponry, so Eastwood tapped the Corps instead. When the Marine brass saw it, however, they were so appalled by the language they withdrew their endorsement. And these are Marines we're talking about, the guys who may have actually invented 6 of the 7 words you can't say on TV. It just goes to show you that four or five years in the Pentagon can ruin anybody.

More interestingly, the movie's title, "Heartbreak Ridge" is a glaring anachronism -Heartbreak Ridge was taken by the Army's 4th Infantry Division, not the Marines. Clint was too in love with the title to change it, so he threw in a line about how Highway fought in Korea with the army but "joined the Corps later." Clint never let logic get in the way of his storytelling, and the audience shouldn't either.

Now come on, you devil dogs, let's take this blankety-blank hill!

In Heartbreak Ridge, Clint Eastwood brings the story of whipping a group of slacker marines into shape to life. Although Clint still packs plenty of great one-liners (which are hilarious), his character shows many other sides as well. The other characters are also very colorful, and display a great transition toward the end of the movie. A must-see for Clint fans as well as anybody else.

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I don't take this movie as seriously as Saving Private Ryan, for example, but I don't think the movie takes itself so seriously, either. In fact, it is pretty darn funny in a subtle way. There is enough variety of characters as comic relief to overcome any factual inaccuracies in the film. It is the classic "New commander whips the boys into shape" story.

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Heartbreak Ridge was an army battle, fought in Korea by the 2nd (Indianhead) Infantry Division, I think. (If I'm wrong, don't shoot.) Apparently, the army refused to sponsor the film and so the writers changed a few lines and the Corps took it up (and later tried to backpedal). The only time this is mentioned is when the Sergeant Major and Pvt Peebles are in the Old Marine Hangout bar (we're never given a name, it sure isn't the Staff NCO club on base) and the SgtMaj gives the Pvt a small history lesson, mentioning that they went in the Corps after Korea.

The film is formula, pure and simple, with all the caricatures of old time war movies. The conflict between Gunnery Sergeant Hightower and the football hero Major is yet another of the neverending personality conflicts without which no military outfit can function according to Hollywood. (If it was really like that, of course, no unit could get itself together enough to make it to the point of embarkation much less fight!)

However, the uniforms and equipment are authentic and worn properly. Even the ribbons and badges are correct as to time and place and worn as prescribed by regulations. The "Gunny fund" scene where Hightower bails out one of his men who is married and in money trouble is real enough. In the old days before base social workers, sergeants did what they had to and units took care of their own as best they could. I remember that in the 80's, ten years after the All Volunteer Armed Forces and enormous pay increases, every single married man in my platoon qualified for food stamps and other welfare programs. We were required to inform them of this and even arrange time for them to go off base to apply! (Young servicepersons below the paygrade of E-5 shouldn't marry because of their lower incomes. General Carl Mundy, onetime Commandant of the Marine Corps, tried to incorporate that into regulations, but was shot down by the PC lobby in DOD.)

What makes the movie worth watching is the Sergeant Major. I don't know where the actor got it, but he is the authentic old-time Staff Noncommissioned Officer to the bone. The erect, authoritative, bearing worn so long as to be as unconciously part of the man as his skin. The sardonic, weatherbeaten face with eyes that don't just look but inspect. The outrageous use of the language unique to noncommissioned officers as described by Nicholas Proffitt in Gardens of Stone: :...the easy mixture of hundred-dollar words and grammatical barbarisms that made up the noncom patois." The hard, cynical, mocking yet gentle humor. I grew up under those men, learned the trade from them, and watched them pass from the scene. That actor plays the part to the point I was convinced the filmakers had hired a real Sergeant Major. Their spirit survives and was passed down, but the mold is no longer used. They belonged to a less technical, technocratic and bureaucratic Marine Corps where most Marines were infantrymen, packs were canvas, rifle stocks wood, barracks were open barnlike structures with no privacy, and trucks and other vehicles were used mostly for hauling heavy equipment the men walked. All that went away in the 70's and early 80's, which is, after all, a prominent subtheme in the film.

Good, cheap, non-thought provoking, entertainment where we get to be the good guys for once.

Semper Fi,

SB Scanlon

Master Sergeant, U.S. Marine Corps (Ret.,)

Want Heartbreak Ridge (2010) Discount?

Clint Eastwood directed and starred in this 1986 film, whose theme we've all seen before. He's cast as an aging Marine sergeant whose whole life has been devoted to the military. Along the way he and his wife, played by Marsha Mason, have split up and he's determined to win her back. He's served in Korea and Vietnam and is now charged with the task of training some raw recruits. They sure are the sorriest lot of trainees I've ever seen and they hate him of course. But he forces discipline on them and really does prepare them to fight in spite of themselves. When they are called upon to go to Grenada to rescue civilians, they rise to the occasion and fight with courage.

That's the plot, and it's really rather silly. But Clint Eastward is a special kind of guy and somehow he somehow manages to pull it all together. A lot of the dialog is absolutely outrageous in its creative vulgarity but it all seemed natural coming out of his mouth. And its easy to see the loving relationship with his ex-wife in spite of a lot of nasty wisecracks directed to each other. The story moved fast and held my interest even though it annoyed me with some of its overacting and over-simplification. But then again, it's supposed to be a comedy.

I can't recommend you go out and buy or rent this film. It's just too lightweight. But if you ever catch it on late-night TV, you'll find it a pleasant time waster. I therefore give it a mild recommendation.

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