"Taps" is unfortunately no "Stripes," though after a few reels it begins to seem longer than "Reds." Actually, the film, all about a futile armed insurrection at a boys' military school, is more of a wearily literal "If . . ."; when they learn their beloved alma mater is to be closed, the cadets seize all the weapons in the place, lock the gates, and refuse to budge until given a hearing on the fate of the school.
From the beginning, "Taps" -- now playing at area theaters -- is a no-win situation, not just for the cadets (we know at least one of them will eventually be shot horribly dead) but for the audience. A grim downer ending is made doggedly inevitable, and a sheepishly equivocating screenplay turns the struggle of the cadets into meaningless expedient contrivance. The premise would have been more effective if Roger Corman had gotten hold of it and made it a crash-bang B-movie; it doesn't quite work as a platform for Weighty Thoughts about militarism. "Taps" blows hot air and ill wind.
It also has an air of rip-off. George C. Scott gets star billing, and as Gen. Harlan Bache, who runs the school, he seems to be building up to what we imagine will be a high old barnstorming time once the crisis gets rolling. But in the screenplay by Darryl Ponicsan ("Cinderella Liberty") and Robert Mark Kamen, Bache accidentally shoots a townie who'd been taunting the cadets on prom night and is hauled off, not quite a third of the way through the picture -- and never heard from again. Later, a character explains that he died of a heart attack in the hospital. That's it for Scott; his premature departure leaves a lot of scenery unchewed and is especially unfortunate since the casting seems designed to evoke memories of his towering performance in "Patton." Scott even has a line grumbling that in the movies "a military leader is often portrayed as slightly insane."
The picture falls onto the wobbly, frail shoulders of Timothy Hutton, apparently to be typecast until he's 40 as The Great Misunderstood Youth of Our Time. But Hutton hasn't anything like the necessary assertiveness and authority to play, believably, the young cadet major who takes charge of the revolt and galvanizes the other boys into action. Hutton never seems more than half there; it's a scientific performance, thought-out but without heart.
There are good performances among the supporting players, especially fiery Sean Penn, who plays Hutton's increasingly cynical pal. Wayne Tippett, who plays Hutton's father -- an Army career man who arrives at the school to scream some sense into sonny boy -- was probably cast for his similarity in appearance to Alexander Haig.
The self-defeating screenplay first extols the military as a final bastion of idealism in a callously mercantile world, then tries to offer another of Hollywood's cautionary sermons against military might. In an early scene, before Scott picks up his check and goes home, Bache raises a snifter in a toast: "To honor. Everything else is subject to sneer the powers that be." Tricky business -- trying to portray the military as a nest of anti-establishment rebels.
Scott is not in what might be called "rare form," whatever that means in his case. In profile, with his sagging face and a pencil mustache, he looks distractingly French, like a slightly seedier Adolphe Menjou. The movie might have been at least foolishly funny if Scott had stayed around to lead the cadet rebellion. Hints of the histrionic potential in that pop up when Scott starts ranting against the real estate developers who want to level the academy. "My God, the thought of it makes me want to puke!" says Scott, decrying country-clubbers who wear short-sleeve shirts "with an alligator on the tit."
When he spits out a curse against "their god-damned condominiums!," Scott seems to be off on the merry if ludicrous path he blazed in "Hardcore," not a minute of which could be taken seriously. But director Harold Becker was obviously not in a mood for any compensating levity; the film is lead-heavy and humorless from Frame-o Uno