'Walking Dead' doesn't bring Vietnam War to life

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"The Walking Dead" follows four black Marines on a night combat patrol in Vietnam, but it's so hokey that it manages almost single-handedly to revise the Marine motto into "Never faithful." It's certainly never faithful to reality.

Give it points for trying to break new ground. The Vietnam War has been re-fought on screen so many times it has come to seem almost banal, but one aspect of the conflict has gone curiously undramatized: the black experience, an issue only peripherally dealt with in "Platoon" or "Hamburger Hill." "The Walking Dead" tries to rectify that.

Oliver Stone's "Platoon," whatever its dramatic or ideological biases, established a benchmark in the physical anthropology of infantry warfare in Southeast Asia. Stone, who'd been there, done that, front-loaded "Platoon" with authenticity. The radio lingo was real, the stylized vocabulary of the grunts felt authentic, the tense dynamic between enlisted men, NCOs and officers crackled, and the firefights were like mad spurts of surrealism.

By contrast, "The Walking Dead" has far more in common with the back-lot style of battle cliche from the old TV show "Combat" or such cornball early World War II films as "Bataan." It appears to be put together without much thought about replicating the imagery and the sensations of ground combat (especially dangerous when for so many of us it was a television war). Mostly it's men running crazily through the jungle firing their M-16s from the hip at full automatic, wildly spraying the undergrowth. There's no sense of fire and movement, no sense of squad teamwork, no sense of such elementary precautions as taking cover.

That lack of rigor applies to the plot and the characters as well. I'm not sure who came up with the device of the platoon as slice o' life microcosm, which was even old when Norman Mailer used it in "The Naked and the Dead" in 1948. Stone only got away with it by reconfiguring the microcosm as an examination of intense hostility, not as an evocation of good ol' American team play.

Preston Whitmore II, who wrote and directed the film, has no luck at all with his slice of black life. It's not that he hasn't been to Vietnam. Ever since the success of Tom Clancy, the old Hemingway requirement that to write about war one must have fought in one has pretty much vanished. Whitmore even hired ex-Marine Dale Dye, who also consulted on "Platoon," to oversee his recruits and his technical accuracy. But the movie is stillborn because it cannot escape from the weight of old war-movie cliche.

The idea seems strong: On a night assault, four black Marines peel from the larger unit and wander through the jungle. Each represents a slightly different aspect of the black experience, and each young actor gets a nice chunk of flashback in which his life back in the world and his connection to a larger system of oppression is dramatized. Each wonders if the Corps has written him off as expendable because of his color.

But the film is flat. From the banal action sequences to the trite dialogue, it all unrolls at the near-parody level. Moreover, each of the flashbacks is a particular debacle, as Whitmore seems to give each man a preposterous background.

Joe Morton plays a top sergeant with a secret. He's a great actor, but his flashback, which details his anguish as a minister confronting an adulterous wife, is ridiculous. In another, Eddie Griffin is an ex-meat packer who was fired for stealing a pound of hamburger. The most ludicrous turns out to be the one white (Roger Floyd) in the cast, a Chicago gangster who hid from pursuing enemies in a line that happened to lead into a Marine recruiting depot.

The dialogue appears to be pinched from old Sid Caesar parodies. "No doubt about it," poor Morton has to say, "The 'Nam can mess up a man's head." "Sarge, Sarge," screams Vonte Sweet as a young recruit new to battle, "Betty Jane just broke up with me!" Possibly Betty Jane had seen the script.

Another irritation is that as the film is structured, it loses interest in each Marine after his flashback. Allen Payne, from "Jason's Lyric," is the best performer and by far the most intriguing character. He's a young ramrod Marine, gung-ho as heck, who's still felt the bitter sting of racism. He has to confront his own doubts while attempting under extremely hazardous circumstances to perform his duty. But once we've flashed back and seen a landlord deny him housing because of his color, he all but disappears from the film.

It's not necessary to have a big budget to do a vivid Vietnam film. Patrick Duncan's "84 Charlie Mopic," another long-patrol film, for example, was put together for much less than "The Walking Dead," and is unbearably real and tragic. "The Walking Dead," though it's a low-budget job, suffers less from not enough money than from not enough imagination.

"The Walking Dead"

Starring Allen Payne, Joe Morton and Eddie Griffin

Directed by Preston Whitmore II

Released by Savoy

Rated R (violence and language)

... **

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