Behind the on-screen title of 1968 Tunnel Rats lurks a vision of Hell. We first get to know a unit of American soldiers tasked with clearing out the networks of underground tunnels constructed by the Viet Cong. Even before the action shifts to the tunnels, the terrible toll of war is on display, with the Lieutenant (Michael Paré) ordering brutal executions and morale very low. Then the operation begins, and everything goes to horribly wrong very quickly.
I haven’t noticed the sun turning black or any angels breaking seals today, but the Apocalypse must be upon us, because I have now seen a good Uwe Boll film. The picture succeeds admirably on two fronts. In the first act, as we get to know the troops, Boll turned his cast loose to improvise dialogue and come up with character back stories. While there are no fully rounded characters here, and clichés abound, there is certainly enough here to make these men recognizable human beings. One shot in particular is striking: a prolonged close-up of the sympathetic sergeant breaking down in tears. Then the real lesson about the hellishness of war kicks in, and does so with a vengeance. No character is safe from gruesome demise, and the claustrophobic horror of the setting is milked for all its worth (if you’re not reduced to the cold sweats by a scene where a solider finds himself trapped in a tunnel between two corpses, you’re already dead). But there are no monsters here – the Viet Cong are not faceless automatons. Instead, we see a group of people, trapped on opposite sides of a ghastly conflict, struggle to stay alive.
Rather than the lush greens one usually associates with Vietname films, Boll’s DP Mathias Neumann has gone for a cold, washed-out palette. The effect is disconcerting at first, but it works, and serves to highlight the contrast between the above-ground and tunnel scenes (where warm browns dominate). There is one shot that is mysteriously grainy, but otherwise the transfer is free of grain and other flaws. The contrasts are strong, and the blacks are profound. And while many of the scenes are extremely dark, they are never grainy.
Though the volume of the track could be pumped up a little bit, it is otherwise an exceptional piece of work. Environmental effects are spectacular, with jungle sounds on all sides. The left/right separation is very wide (to the point that even ordinary headphones start sounding damn close to surround) and the placement is excellent.
Commentary Tracks: Boll and Neumann do the honours here, and their discussion is wide-ranging, covering everything from the making of the film to speculations about the wisdom of attempting to impose democracy in Iran. Amusingly, a phone call interrupts the track, with the news that a third participant is stuck at the airport and won’t be able to make it to the recording. No retakes here!
Interview with Uwe Boll: (14:24) Boll talks about what motivated the film, and its making, sometimes going over similar ground to the commentary, including spoiling the end of Blood Diamond, should anyone care.
Behind-the-Scenes Featurette: (10:14) Fairly standard stuff, but not uninteresting.
Deleted Scenes: (6:10) One extended scene and a number of unused takes. No audio.
I can’t believe it, but I can’t get around it. Uwe Boll has crafted an engrossing and brutalizing film.