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‘Heartbreak Ridge’

By Paul Attanasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 05, 1986


Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood;
Marsha Mason;
Everett McGill;
Bo Svenson;
Mario Van Peebles;
Moses Gunn;
Tom Villard
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Why do we go to Clint Eastwood movies? To watch Clint whisper his killer lines, stand tall for American virility against his milquetoast bosses and, with fist and gun, knock the stuffings out of his foes.

And that's what you get from "Heartbreak Ridge," with a few modifications. For example: Clint doesn't whisper his killer lines here, he growls them, in what appears to be an imitation of George C. Scott.

Also: His hair is thinner.

Eastwood (who also directs) plays Gunnery Sgt. Tom Highway, known as "Gunny," a hard-drinkin', tough-talkin' marine with a chestful of medals from Korea, Vietnam and the 1965 Dominican adventure. A year from retirement, Highway gets a last chance at doing what he really loves -- he's assigned to the "recon" platoon where he started his career, and given the task of whipping a bunch of losers and malcontents into . . . marines.

Those with an endless appetite for this sort of tough-man-tender-chicken melodrama will enjoy watching Clint go up against these young punks and outrun, outshoot, outdrink and outpunch them, in the process lending an idea of what it means to be a . . . marine. And there is, undeniably, some fun in the Punch-and-Judy routine worked between Eastwood and Mario Van Peebles, playing a rap-singing marine who styles himself the "Duke of Cool."

But what rap songs (there are three) have to do with Clint Eastwood is anyone's guess. And at any rate, that relationship quickly becomes cloying, as do the film's other attempts to "soften" Clint -- his reunion with his feisty ex-wife (Marsha Mason), for example, and his attempts to "communicate" with her by studying so-called "women's" magazines such as Bazaar. In the years since "Dirty Harry," Eastwood has taken his career along two tracks -- he's either a straight-ahead action hero or he's playing off that persona (as in the warmly intended sendup "Bronco Billy"). Part of the problem with "Heartbreak Ridge" is that he tries to do both at once.

But most of the problem comes from the big finale, which is, lamentably, the invasion of Grenada. Whatever you think of the politics of that affair, it's a bit hard to work up a full head of steam for a movie about it. A few Cubans with AK47s isn't exactly "The Guns of Navarone." At the end, you can't decide whether Eastwood and his platoon should get medals or merit badges.

The best thing about "Heartbreak Ridge" is screen writer Jim Carabatsos' flair for marine jargon so baroque as to be nearly impenetrable. To pick two examples that can be quoted in a family newspaper, a Cuban cigar becomes a "contraband stogie." Or: "If I was half as ugly as you I'd be a poster child for a prophylactic."

But this kind of macho bantering quickly wears thin, too -- I guess it's not surprising that men who spend most of their time with other men would lard their conversation with taunts of homosexuality and allusions to male gonads, but it's not particularly interesting either. And as a storyteller, Carabatsos is no better than a competent hack. The plot is schematic, the characters are cliche's: the commanding officer who was promoted out of the supply depot and has never seen combat, the grizzled old cuss who fought side by side with Highway at Heartbreak Ridge.

For an hour and a half, whenever the story hits a difficult turn or a scene needs an ending, we hear the name "Heartbreak Ridge" delivered in tones fraught with portent, as everyone nods grimly. Finally, Van Peebles has the gumption to ask what the heck Heartbreak Ridge is anyway, and we find out that it was a battle in Korea and that Highway went three days without sleep and stormed two machine gun nests solo and blah blah blah.

So what do I think of Clint Eastwood? Well, I could tell you about his inflated reputation. I could tell you that he's a movie star, in the sense that movie stars do one thing extremely well, or that he's an extremely mediocre director, best when he's economical (as in his camera movement), worst when he's economy minded (as in the movie's typically low-quality cinematography and lousy score). Or I could simply nod grimly and say:

"Heartbreak Ridge."

"Heartbreak Ridge" is rated R and contains considerable profanity, violence and sexual themes.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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