I remember that this film was all the rage when I was a kid growing up in the early 80’s. I always assumed that the reason that I didn’t care for the film at the time was that I was just too young to fully appreciate it. Turns out, it’s just not a very good movie. I certainly appreciate where it is trying to go, it’s just that it takes the hokiest path possible to get there. The film tells the story of a military academy that is slated to be shut down and turned into condominiums. The cadets, who apparently enjoy the fact that they are in military school, are so proud of the institution that they use their minimal combat training to hold off the developers. It this a dramatic film that wishes to be taken seriously, or The Goonies? By the time the situation escalates to the point where the cadets are involved in a full-fledged skirmish with the real US military, audiences will likely be too bored to care. Part of what makes Dog Day Afternoon such a fantastic film is that the standoff in that film comes at about the 5-minute mark. This thing is more like an 80’s sitcom for the first hour or so.
The acting, however, is surprisingly good under the circumstances. This film marks the first real film efforts from both Tom Cruise and Sean Penn. Even with such hokey source material, these two fine actors give it their all, and it is occasionally possible to believe that they really care about the academy here and there. George C. Scott is also here as the school’s Dean, which was an excellent casting decision for anyone who remembers him best as General George Patton. In the end, though, the mixture of great young actors and seasoned veterans just isn’t enough to elevate this film beyond being a second-rate After School Special version of The Lord of the Flies.
It seems odd to me that a special edition film would feature a 4.0 soundtrack. Then again, I have always found the 4.0 track to be awkward. I’m not sure what the thinking is behind a track that is all side dishes and no main course. You get dialog, of course, it’s just that is comes from the front sides of the room instead of the screen. If you ever had a do-it-yourself home theater setup in the 80’s or early 90’s, I am sure you know how distracting this can be. I would have preferred the standard 2.0 track instead of the enhanced 4.0 effort.
The video quality here is not just bad, it is shockingly bad. I have seen many, many videocassettes that look better tan this “special edition” disc. The colors are off, the black levels are overly-saturated and the grain is out of control. Admittedly, the grain does clear up after the first couple of minutes, but the first few minutes of the film are just tragic. The picture quality for the bulk of the movie improves to being slightly less than average, but it never fully rises to the quality that is to be expected from a modern DVD release.
Turns out, this disc is only a “Special Edition” because the previous DVD release had no extras whatsoever. This title is still far from packed. The disc includes a marginally-informative commentary track by director Harold Becker, that is really only worthwhile to hear about the early experiences with the talented young actors in the film. They are also discussed in a new documentary featurette called Sounding the Call to Arms: Mobilizing the Taps Generation. Not surprisingly, there is no sign of Cruise or Penn here, but they are certainly discussed, as is the rest of the film. It’s not anything groundbreaking, but it does have some informative points here and there.
I was a little surprised to find the second documentary featurette, though. I understand why The Bugler’s Cry: The Origins of Playing Taps fits on this disc, but I couldn’t help but feel like it was filler instead of actual film-specific content. If this was a two disc set, I would welcome this segment. Since there are only a couple of extra features here, however, I kind-of feel like it is surplus padding. The extras wrap up with a couple of classic TV spots for the film.
Really, what we are looking at here is a second-rate retelling of The Lord of the Flies. With a few plot tweaks and a tighter script, this could have turned out to be a great film. As it stands, however, it is really more of a curiosity for the early film appearances of Cruise and Penn than a thrilling military drama. If you are a fan of this film, this edition is clearly the one you should pick up. Just don’t expect this “Special Edition” to contain any more content than most films’ regular editions.