Friday, 27 January 2017

Hacksaw Ridge review

Colossal buffoon Mel Gibson returns to directing to give us 'Hacksaw Ridge' - a historical epic set near the end of WWII. Check out my thoughts after the jump...

Walking into conflict.
Mel Gibson, huh. Pretty much universally hated for everything (reasonable or unreasonable); from his detest for Jewish people (the former), to 'Apocalypto' (the latter); he's certainly proved a divisive figure of the establishment. Which is why, unsurprisingly, 'Hacksaw Ridge' doesn't stand a chance of winning an Oscar nom, never mind it's quality (which, of course, is the subject of this piece).

*I wrote that paragraph after seeing it on the 12th Jan. As this goes to publication, I now realise I was wrong, and it got quite a few nominations. Seems Hollywood is ready to forgive and forget.

On this the desperate quest to ape 'Saving Private Ryan' (see: every war movie made since 1998), Garfield helms a cast of military stereotypes set to take the titular land in Japan, 1945. However, despite it's insistence on 'the horrors of conflict', 'Full Metal Jacket' structure theft, and cringe-religious allegorical schmutz; it still manages to be an excellent experience.

Garfield stars as Private Desmond Doss, a pacifist who refuses to hold a rifle (partially explained by his Christian heritage, and partially explained via a series of flashbacks) but that still wants to fight for his country.

How patriotic.

Saving the wounded.
It is, however, a true story. We follow the private through his decision to join the war effort, his trip through boot camp, and finally his life in the horrors of war. 'Hacksaw Ridge' is split roughly into three parts (top weighted, mind you). In the first part, we get a sort of 'Full Metal Jacket' - lite. As in, it's like 'FMJ' but without the darkness or the crushing realization of pointlessness. (Which is to say, it's not like 'FMJ' at all). After proposing to his girlfriend, and disappointing his parents (specifically his father who fought in the First World War and has no intentions of his sons going off to fight in the second), he heads off to boot camp for basic training. There he bonds with his squad, before mounting a desperate legal battle to be able to A) complete the training without having to hold a gun; and B) to go into battle without holding a gun. It's well acted and intense, but it doesn't really matter, as without Doss there would be no film - so clearly he's gonna win. Of course, his fellow soldiers Howell (Vince Vaughn), Glover (Sam Worthington), Hollywood (Luke Pegler) and more don't take too well to this - and so ensues psychological mind games. Indeed, the trainee soldiers fit almost every stereotype imaginable - but that's surely what was expected.

The second third of the movie takes place on the titular patch of land, which must be captured by the troops - and is, essentially, a 20/25 minute battle sequence. So yeah, here's the 'Saving Private Ryan' part. I have to say, however, that this scene is choreographed to perfection. The ridge itself is beautifully filmed - a sheer cliff face with a cargo net hanging down over the side for the soldiers to scale. Of course, there's the brutality of battle on show, but there's also supreme tension. We've met these characters and spent at least an hour with them, and we know some/many of them are going to die. The constant explosions, eviscerating shell fire, and the presence of subterranean tunnels filled with the enemy lend an immediacy to the action. I kid you not, I thought this battle was just going to last until the end of the movie. It didn't, but it wouldn't have been too bad if it did.

Doss's girlfriend/fiance. 
And the final third, and perhaps the most central to the narrative, involves Doss roaming the terrain post-battle, trying to save the wounded, and avoid the Japanese - who walk amongst the dead, shooting and stabbing to ensure that no life remains. Again, these scenes are incredibly tense (particularly during a stint where Doss actually climbs into the tunnels); and the story is lent gravitas by the fact that it's true (allowing for some cinematic excess). Unfortunately, as we get closer and closer to the end, the film becomes ever-increasingly sentimental - getting trapped in it's own self-righteous Christian haze. This gets to the point where, in the last five minutes, I was going to let out an audible groan. But still, it's five minutes in a movie that's 139 minutes long.

Although the story is true, it's a good time to mention that it hardly adds anything new. As I've already told you, the segments separately form reliable stock parts of previous, and perhaps better, war films ('Saving Private Ryan' is not nearly as good as people say it is but 'FMJ' is a goddamn masterclass). Although the tonal shift from the friendly and triumphant first act to the grim and tense second is a masterstroke, the rest of the movie is wholly predictable.

The Ridge.
The performances, however, are uniformly fantastic. Perhaps, one might say that Garfield oversteps the line a little on the 'simple, southern type soldier'. But he's likable and endearing. Quite the two-one faith punch with this and 'Silence' released withing a month of each other. Gibson manages to elicit decent performances from Vaughn and Worthington too, which is a damn-near impossibility. Special mention should go to Hugo Weaving, who plays the intensely complicated character of Tom Doss (the father). He has to balance a pride, and a fear - as well as acting psychologically and physically damaged from his own ordeals. In Doss's flashbacks we learn a lot more about his home life, which again paints another angle to him.

In terms of cinematography, the movie has its high points and its low points. The battle scenes themselves, are filmed with virtuoso gusto that echoes the director's earlier 'Braveheart' in the way that the camera swirls, without becoming disconcerted, around the action which surrounds it. However, in terms of the general palette and the main storyline, it does begin to feel a little bland. Muted greens and greys seem to be the sole preserve of the film - and whilst dwelling on bootcamp, the camera rarely does anything that makes us think twice...

Boot Camp
CGI is also a notable, if not huge, issue. A lot of the mists and explosions look decidedly fake. And, in the second half of the film, much emphasis is put on the action of a line of battleships on the other side of the ridge. These ships are clearly the work of graphic designers, and this harms the production quality a little.

The score of 'Hacksaw Ridge' unfortunately left me wanting for more - a tangible sense of uniqueness. The tracks are common of this type of movie - tense-ish general compositions, likely made whilst sat in front of some music software. It's just stock royalty-free 'action' music, without anything really to take away from that that's extra.

There's also a slight paradoxical problem with the film, in that it's sending out contradictory messages. Whist all the blood and the gore seems to connote that the 'horrors of war' are being extolled, the story and tone tell a different story. the film is supposed to be uplifting and entertaining - these battles are supposed to be terse and exciting. In 'Saving Private Ryan', the soldiers were simply cut to pieces by machine gun fire - with no chance of victory. Here, Gibson is all about the glorious fight the soldiers put up - and is gunning for their eventual win. Also, the battle scenes themselves are rather entertaining - with the horrific violence just serving as a reminder of the stakes. Not sure if it's entirely moral, but I'm pretty certain he can't have it both ways.

The path to battle. 
Overall, then, 'Hacksaw Ridge' is an entertaining, tense, and fascinating look at an inspirational true story. It may not be the most original production, and it may dissolve into sentimentality towards it's climax; but for the most part it's a gruesomely wild ride. A showcase of acting, directing, and spectacular choreography.
'Hacksaw Ridge' gets 3 stars. For the record,
it's reasonably close to 4.

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