War is hell, as they say, except when it comes from Hollywood, where it is only just hellish enough to play in Poughkeepsie. In "The Boys in Company C," the latest slice of Vietnam to sally forth from studio, war is entertainment.

Imagine a serious-minded "M*A*S*H" and you have "Boys," soccer instead of football and a film that only nibbles at the edges of war's meaning - a case of producers (The Golden Harvest Group of Hong Kong with Columbia as distributor) cautiously sticking one toe in the pond of commerce to test just how much Truth the viewing public will pay to see. "Boys" briefly bellies up to the smorgasbord of war, as in Vietnam, then retreats to romantic notions gleaned from other battles.

While "Boys" loads up on hackneyed Vietnam imagery - dope-smuggling, fragging, hypocrisies of body counts, the soldier as pawn in a larger game, etc. - it somehow manages to tiptoe around cliche. Viewed as simply a film about the evolution of friendship under fire, it makes for a mostly sympathetic, sometimes moving, fast-paced war story.

What emerges from the Philippines location footage of a collaborative screenplay between director Sidney Furie and Rick Natkin is a tale that celebrates the triumph of the human spirit, glorifies the Corps and reveals a cache of undiscovered talent.

"boys" should do for actor Stan Shaw what "Roots" did for former unknown Levan (Kunte Kinte) Burton. Furie doesn't allow Shaw enough scenes to sustain a convincing conversion from dope-dealing ghetto cynic to courageous Cpl. Tyrone Washington, but his role as platoon leader and dependable friend crackles with the authenticity of Chicago roots.

Shaw's stunning, street-wise performance is accented by the memorable crustiness of Company C's boot camp drill instructor, played by Lee Ermey. A former DI who now runs shrimp boats in Manila, Ermey was originally hired as technical adviser; but Furie enlisted him on the spot for a role that eclipses a classic - Jack Webb in "The DI."

Yet, if the good guys emerge as saints, Furie abandons the bad guys to caricature. Vietnamese Col. Trang (Vic Diaz), for example, comes off as a character out of Charlie Chan reruns, and senior officers don't fare much better.

The Marine Corps should certainly be pleased, as "The Boys in Company C" gives the image a public spitshine like it hasn't seen since World War II. Faceless (army) generals are portrayed as sufficiently venal; DIs as loud-mouthed, if well-meaning, SOBs; Vietnam as political misadventure.

The spiritual glue between the players begins to bond in boot camp, where the narration unfolds as flashback from the diary of would-be writer Alvin Foster (James Canning), one of the boys in Company C. The action-adventure drama throws Foster into forced camaraderie with Tyron Washington, draft dodger Dave Bisbee (Craig Wasson), redneck Billy Ray Pike (Andrew Stevens) and macho hustler Vinnie Fazio (Michael Lembeck). Overall, the players create an interaction that redeems a pseudo-anti-war statement film that hardly overstates.