Do we need another Vietnam war movie? Especially one by Uwe Boll, of all people?
Whatever your immediate gut reaction to that question, there's no doubting that this much maligned director (who once challenged his five harshest critics to a ten round boxing match!) has at least found a compelling new angle from which to approach this oft filmed war. While some of America's top directors have gone down the "epic" route in depicting this turning point in American military foreign policy, Boll, a slightly less revered director, takes the war underground — literally — focusing on the battle which came to be fought amid a sophisticated network of claustrophobic underground tunnels dug by the Vietcong in the steamy jungle, from which they raged a desperate guerrilla war against the Americans.
That said, Boll's general approach proves little different from that which we've seen in countless movies that deal with this particular war. It starts with the latest batch of raw recruits being helicoptered in to the Cu Ciu region where, under the uncompromising command of Sergeant Vic Hollowborn (Michael Pare), they prepare to be catapulted from their everyday civilian lives straight into a nightmarish struggle for survival, as the unit prepares to move in on a network of recently discovered tunnel openings in the middle of the jungle.
Their first introduction to their new, horrific situation is to be forced to witness the impromptu execution of a captured Vietnamese sniper as he's hanged from a tree. While battle-hardened vets and raw, callow youths who've never seen battle in their lives, mix and swap stories and sometimes fall out, waiting for the next day's descent into Hell, their enemies steel themselves for the coming onslaught in the living spaces hewn from the earth in an elaborate system of tunnels they have been forced to make their homes in. The film, in this opening half, like many a war movie before it (particularly one dealing with the Vietnamese war) is more an exercise in studying character in lieu of the coming onslaught. We know that most if not all the cast are going to be brutally slain before the film is finished, and so the point becomes to make us care about their lives by giving us a series of character portraits we can identify with, primarily through their interactions with each other.
Boll apparently shot the film without any script — just a general outline of the structure of the movie he wanted to finish up with. That being the case, he allowed the cast to improvise a script and create their own characters. This is always a risky strategy. Some, like Mike Leigh have made a career of perfecting the approach, but it can veer into mawkish self-indulgence. There are moments in the opening forty-minutes of "Tunnel Rats" where you can feel the cogs whirring as the cast almost seem to be competing in a competition to produce the most touching, the most poignant, the most sentimental backstory. But the process has its intended effect: in the second half of the movie, when the ensemble move on the tunnel system, intending to flush out and exterminate the beleaguered Vietcong inhabitants, the film develops into a nightmare; escalating foreboding and horrific sudden violence as one-by-one the characters we've come to relate to get killed-off in a variety of unpleasant ways.
Boll, for all his critics' ire, proves very adept at building up an atmosphere of ever-increasing dread and hopelessness. The violence is as raw and brutal as any you might find in a modern torture porn flick, making this closer to a horror movie experience than one usually expects to encounter in what is ostensibly a war movie. The film comes to have a truly nightmarish quality about it. Neil Jordan's "The Descent" comes to mind more than once; and the cramped, darkened, booby-trapped tunnels through which the men are forced to struggle for their survival, do seem to come to represent the proscribed, inescapable futility of lives — both American and Vietnamese — caught in an absurd game which has been dictated by political forces beyond their control. Inevitably, Boll spends more time with the American soldiers than he does with their Vietnamese enemies, but he resists any temptation to demonise the tunnel dwellers while also offering no real hope of a way out of the infernal hell hole all the characters have been pulled in to by the end of the film.
The decent region 2 DVD from Metrodome comes with a small selection of extras which includes an interview with director Uwe Boll, deleted scenes, behind the scenes featurette and a trailer.