Last week, we recorded a Shouts From the Back Row podcast about good films from bad directors. My top choice involved the much-maligned Joel Schumacher, who may have directed one of cinema’s great abominations, Batman & Robin, but was also responsible for the Michael Douglas classic, Falling Down. However, we got into an interesting debate about whether or not Joel Schumacher really is a “bad” director. Sure, his recent career has been plagued by such stinkers as The Phantom of the Opera, The Number 23 and Trespass, but he’s also delivered a surprising number of genuinely solid films, including The Lost Boys, A Time to Kill and Phone Booth. However, Schumacher’s negative reputation is likely due to the fact that Batman & Robin was SO bad that it will forever overshadow everything else he’s done. Schumacher followed up Batman & Robin by making 8MM and Flawless, which both got mixed reactions, but the film which actually managed to give the director some credibility again was his 2000 military drama, Tigerland. The film got a limited theatrical release and made very little money at the box office, but it made for a surprisingly compelling and well-made entry into a rather well-worn genre. Watching it, you can hardly believe it’s from a director who was only three years removed from the Bat Credit Card.
Tigerland takes place in September 1971 at an Army boot camp in Fort Polk, Louisiana, where new recruits are being trained for the Vietnam War. They will conclude their training in an area known as “Tigerland”, which is a deliberately gruelling simulation of what combat will be like once they arrive in Vietnam. After the Tigerland portion of their training is over, they will be sent overseas, but by this point, the overwhelming public perception is that the war has already been lost, so the recruits are not very anxious to go fight for their country. The main protagonist in this story is Roland Bozz (Colin Farrell), a rebellious soldier who openly flaunts his disrespect for authority and is constantly getting into trouble. Bozz quickly befriends an ambitious recruit named Paxton (Matthew Davis) and even though most of the soldiers at Fort Polk were drafted, Bozz is shocked to learn that Paxton willingly signed up for military service on his own. Most of the draftees do not share Paxton’s enthusiasm and some of them clearly do not belong in the Army and have virtually no chance of surviving in Vietnam. Among those who are subject to constant abuse are the dim-witted Cantwell (Thomas Guiry), who is married to a handicapped wife with four children and only has a sixth-grade education and, and Miter (Clifton Collins, Jr.), a weakling who is inexplicably made platoon leader and feels the wrath of his instructors when he cannot control Bozz’s rebellious antics. However, much to the disgust of his superiors, Bozz is an expert at finding loopholes to get his fellow recruits out of the Army.
Tigerland is very reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam War classic, Full Metal Jacket, which is considered the most memorable portrayal of a military boot camp in the history of cinema. Of course, the biggest criticism of Full Metal Jacket is that the first half of the film, which chronicles Marine basic training at Parris Island, is so good that the second half feels rather anticlimactic once the action moves to Vietnam. However, Tigerland gets around this problem by keeping the entire story at Fort Polk and there are times when the military training depicted in this film make the boot camp from Full Metal Jacket look sane. Even though Bozz is the main character, the story is essentially told from the point-of-view of Paxton, who decided to sign up for the Army because he is an idealist who wants to fight for his country. However, his friendship with Bozz allows him to realize that the whole set-up is pretty much bullshit. Bozz knows that the Vietnam War has become unwinnable and that Tigerland is essentially training soldiers to be shipped overseas and senselessly slaughtered for no reason. Bozz’s superiors find him to be such a frustrating enigma because he could clearly be a great soldier and leader in other circumstances, but he does not feel this particular war warrants it. During his training, Bozz becomes enemies of another recruit named Wilson (Shea Whigham), who is clearly a complete psychopath. But even after Wilson shows himself to be a danger to his fellow soldiers, the Army keeps him around because they know that a violent killing machine like him could be very useful in Vietnam. Even though Bozz is presented as a rebellious cynic, he often seems to be the only character capable of understanding the inhumanity of the whole situation. Bozz is a fascinatingly complex character, who is effectively brought to life in a star-marking performance by Colin Farrell.
At the time, Farrell was an unknown Irish actor who was just starting out in Hollywood, but his work in Tigerland put him on the map and it wasn’t long before he would become an A-list star. Even though traces of his Irish accent slip into his dialogue from time to time, Farrell delivers a terrifically charismatic performance, which still remains the best one of his career. The actor gets solid support from the rest of the cast, particularly Clifton Collins Jr. as Miter and future Boardwalk Empire star Shea Whigham, who delivers a terrifying turn as Wilson. Boardwalk Empire fans will also be happy to see an early performance from Michael Shannon, who only appears in one scene, but makes a memorable impression as a deranged sergeant who teaches torture methods which include applying electric current to the enemy’s testicles. At the time Tigerland was released, Joel Schumacher might have seemed like the last director to take on a project like this, but after the flashy razzle dazzle of Batman & Robin, Schumacher shows a surprising amount of restraint, directing the material with a gritty, handheld documentary-like realism which suits the material. As I stated earlier, Tigerland barely got a theatrical release, but it has developed a bit of following on home video. The movie covers subject matter which has been covered in many other war movies, but it provides a very interesting and sometimes riveting look at how the dehumanizing effects of war can affect people who haven’t even gone into combat yet. In the end, this film went a long way at helping salvage Joel Schumacher’s reputation, so if M. Night Shyamalan no longer wants to be a laughingstock, maybe his next project should be something like Tigerland.