Back in the 80’s I remember seeing this film on the shelf of my local video library, under the title Saigon. Then the Tremors bandwagon had got me on the trail of watching all things Fred Ward and this was one that seemed a little less accessible. The video library was closed when I went hunting and the title became elusive in the UK.
Almost 30 years later I have managed to import and take in this obscure little thriller and whilst it has scratched an old itch, the film was not worth the anticipation.
Set entirely in Saigon, Dafoe and Hines play a couple of military police investigating a serial killer that is murdering ladies of the night around Saigon. Their investigation is fraught with tension from both sides of the conflict and the unease is the undeniable star of the film, alongside the incredible Saigon. The faces of the indigenous people of Vietnam paint the background as the Americans get on with their business, without any regard as to how it affects the local people. The film rarely focuses on the Vietnamese, save for the slayed or some law enforcement services.
There was an interesting period in the late 80’s and early 90’s when Dafoe was taking on the macho leading roles in higher profile movies like this and White Sands, in between the more dramatic works we associate with Dafoe and it’s understandable as he supports the movie with ease. Hines provides effective support, however, both leading characters feel half-baked and there isn’t too much chemistry between them. Buddy dialogue exists, however, the two can’t sell it particularly well. Feeling more at home is Fred Ward as he plays the likeable, if a little weary, Commanding Officer.
Support is a little scant. Amanda Pays plays a nun who knows more about the underworld than she should and in another world may have been a love interest for Dafoe. Keith David and David Alan Grier pop up for a few minutes to get the film rolling, however their appearances are frustratingly brief. Both make the most of their screen time.
Annoyingly the film falls in between so many genres that it doesn’t manage to succeed in any of them. As a thriller it loses out to predictably more often than not. The action sequences are light and infrequent and more graphic and sordid elements are lacking in consistency.
The film does nail the hot, sweaty atmosphere of the location. The tension is kept tight between investing their home side and those who’s soil they thread whilst the war rages on in the background. The mission feels like a suicide mission for the pair. A climatic moment finds Dafoe and Hines bundled, willingly, into a car to be taken to the tunnels of the Vietcong to discover a major plot point is an all too brief excursion to the other side of the conflict. Similarly, a trip to speak with Scott Glenn proves to be the film’s highlight and one of the most unpredictable moments of the film.
This would be Christopher Crowe’s biggest feature as a writer and director. Crowe’s name may be familiar to some due to sharing a writing credit with Michael Mann on the screenplay of The Last of the Mohicans. Not to mention that he was the creator of B.L. Stryker the following year.
Saigon is not a terrific thriller or rediscovered classic. There are interesting moments amongst the routine. I would not even suggest that Dafoe and Hines’ lack of chemistry is to blame either. The script is just uninspired and needed to push into a particular genre to excel, rather than being an extremely lightweight mixture of Good Morning Vietnam, Lethal Weapon and Silence of the Lambs.
A DVD can be found on Amazon. Off Limits does not appear to be available to stream in the UK at this time.
Poster art is pretty fantastic and there were a bunch of variations for different areas of the world. Beggars believe that with such amazing artwork the current DVD features such a shoddy and unimaginative illustration.
As I wrote this review the news arrived that Fred Ward passed away on the 5th May, age of 79. As mentioned in the review, he was the reason I sought this movie for many years and as a huge fan for Fred Ward this is particularly hard hitting.
As an actor, Ward was flawless. His grizzled manliness was ever present with the ability to hide his softer side, until needed, if needed.
Turns in The Right Stuff, Miami Blues, Uncommon Valor, Tremors, Remo, Bob Roberts, Thunderheart are incredible. Heck, even Road Trip, Naked Gun 33 1/3 and some of the direct to video stuff like Exit Speed and Chaos Factor were elevated above their type, massively, thanks to his involvement. A little know fact is that early in his career Ward used to dub Italian westerns into English, perhaps this was the inspiration for his son’s name, Django.
Thankfully we still have a huge catalogue of great films to remember Fred Ward by and he will be there when we need him. Thanks Fred.