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'Heartbreak Ridge'

By Rita Kempley
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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IT'S always fun to see misguided machismo properly channeled into service of God, country or the National Hockey League. Ah, to watch a barracks' worth of boot campers whipped into a few good men by a combat-hardened, skin-headed NCO.

But what then, Sarge? Send 'em to Grenada?

Isn't that the trouble with combat movies these days? From "Top Gun" to "First Blood" to Clint Eastwood's entertaining action drama "Heartbreak Ridge," the empty-foxhole syndrome makes for non-endings. If you've got your heart set on war these days, you've got to join the CIA.

But here it's movie business as usual, with the mayor of Carmel creating a strong and silent so-and-so called Gunnery Sergeant Tom Highway. He's a spit-and-polish warhorse, straight as frozen laundry and so full of shrapnel he can't get into airports. The Korean and Vietnam veteran rejoins his old unit, the 2nd Marine Reconnaissance Platoon, now commanded by a bunch of military school sissies and ROTC nerds.

Naturally, Gunny shows these college commandos a thing or two about real jarheads, turning his ragtag outfit around with some topnotch swearing and the customary water hurdles, barbed-wire crawls and right-thinking rappelling. Mario Van Peebles, son of director Melvin Van Peebles, plays the gentleman to Eastwood's officer in this variation on the classic theme. As rapping, rock-singing recruit Stitch Jones, Van Peebles comes to respect the Sarge after the customary test of will. (This involves strutting in skivvies, swearing lustily and bragging constantly about a body part that's supposed to have more to do with making love than war.)

Naturally, Gunny smokes big cigars, brawls in bars and sounds like he's got tank treads where his tonsils ought to be. He's a man's man who hopes to understand women by reading magazines like Bazaar and Femme. It gives his straight-and-narrow character a little charm as he tries to rekindle his relationship with Marsha Mason, as his wary ex-wife.

The tension between Gunny and Stitch is more vital. And Van Peebles picks up the pace with his pretty face and jive talk -- a colorful comic contrast to Eastwood's manly minimalism. Boyd Gaines of "Porky's" and "The Sure Thing" has a show-stealing role as a greenhorn lieutenant. And Everett McGill of "Quest for Fire" is sublimely smarmy as the southern-drawling major out to break good old Gunny.

You just couldn't ask for more conflict, as Eastwood directs his 12th motion picture. But after 90 minutes of old-fashioned character-building, there's nothing to do with these Marines but ship them off to Grenada, where they kill another 45 minutes saving Americans who couldn't get into med school back home. There's some fighting, sure -- what would this country be without more Caribbean-trained doctors? But most of the time you wonder why they weren't issued beach towels with their bayonets.

And when our suntanned heros come marching home to patriotic ditties played by brass bands, Gunny and company are pleased to have improved America's post-WWII season from 0-1-1. They won one for the gipper and gosh are they proud. But to tell the truth, the Grenada Incursion looks even sillier on film than it did in the headlines. War is not hell, it's big box office. HEARTBREAK RIDGE (R) -- At area theaters.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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