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‘Casualties of War’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 18, 1989


Brian De Palma
Michael J. Fox;
Sean Penn;
Don Harvey;
John C. Reilly
Under 17 restricted

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Another Brian De Palma movie, another bludgeoning. Or stabbing. Or body-drilling. Whatever -- as long as the victim's a woman. In "Casualties of War," the savaged female this time is a Vietnamese village girl dragged along for "portable R&R" by American GIs, then raped repeatedly, stabbed and shot.

Enjoying the movie so far?

Hey, De Palma didn't make this up, he'd argue. It Really Happened, as documented by Daniel Lang in a 1969 New Yorker article and ensuing book. De Palma's just -- you know -- the messenger. Trouble is, this messenger has changed the names and facts to protect the movie sequences.

And has heightened that murder. Of course De Palma's just sick about the atrocity (the murder, not the movie). So sick about it, he wants you to see it in slow motion. But is it a tragic death or a De Palma set piece? Celebrated for his over-stylized scenes involving great plasma spillage, De Palma lingers over the grisly death of Oaha (Thuy Thu Lee) like a demented priest who's mistaken bloodletting for transubstantiation.

Presiding at the sacrifice are Little Big Men Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn as, respectively, the good and the bad (to De Palma's ugly). Fox, as central character Pfc. Eriksson, is there to whistle-blow the killers to justice and supply the movie's requisite moral outrage; while ruthless sergeant Penn, as the rape instigator, seems to be trying to evade court-martial blame by imitating, variously, Robert Duvall, Robert De Niro and "Platoon's" bad boy, Tom Berenger.

As if sated by the rape and murder, De Palma speeds perfunctorily through the rest of the movie, pausing only to linger on a suspense-filled bombing attempt on Fox's life, the smacking of someone's head with a spade (not unlike that sickening baseball bat scene in De Palma's "The Untouchables") and -- to add Hollywood wrap-up to injury -- a sped-up trial in which, we are informed documentary-style, a military tribunal throws the book at the culprits. They didn't.

But don't let a little gore, misogyny, factbusting, counterfeit hipness and screenwriter David ("Streamers") Rabe's public disassociation from the project get in your way. Enjoy Penn's actor imitations. Or Fox's raspy earnestness. Or scorer Ennio Morricone's sentimental mortars. Or a bafflingly anticlimactic final sequence in which veteran Fox appears to come to terms with himself with the help of an Asian woman and a dropped scarf. Is that what you call a wrap?

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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