Tigerland was the last stop before Vietnam. It was the training ground at Ft. Polk, Louisiana that mimicked the conditions of the country and the war as best it could to get soldiers prepared for what they would be living with during the next year or more. This was a real place and it sounds scary as hell. I mean the only thing it was missing were actual tigers that could claw your goddamn face off.
The movie Tigerland uses its namesake for the finale but there’s so much more that happens in the build up to that last obstacle before they ship you off into the abyss. To guide us through the experience we’ve got Roland Bozz (Colin Farrell (The New World, Saving Mr. Banks)). He’s a smart mouthed troublemaker that rebels at every turn. No matter what his commanders say or have him do he finds a way to make light of the situation, do something completely different than what he’s supposed to or flat out protest. He’s vehemently against the war and harming others in general. He only wants to have a good time all the time. This, of course, means that he’s been in training camp way longer than normal so he knows the ropes very well. Bozz uses his knowledge to help get his fellow grunts out of the army through loopholes so they can go on to live much longer lives without all the trauma (hopefully).
Now I’ll be the first to admit that Colin Farrell isn’t a great actor. He pretty much plays himself here with a pitiful Texan accent that only materializes maybe every ten lines. During almost all of the heavy dramatic scenes you can see him trying real hard but that’s just it, it looks too much like he’s trying. Although, I do appreciate that he doesn’t pull a Leonardo DiCaprio and simply yell and attempt to substitute rage for any emotion that he’s supposed to be feeling (for the most part anyway). But you know what? I like to watch the man work. I don’t know what it is but I don’t mind him at all. He’s like Michael Douglas or Samuel L Jackson where they don’t do characters exactly. They do themselves but it’s fantastic almost no matter what. Farrell isn’t the caliber of those two but generally that’s how I feel about him. And this could be the best I’ve ever seen him.
Joel Schumacher (Falling Down, Twelve) directed and he did a really good job. He shot this in grainy 16mm and that along with the journalistic camera work makes this one gritty fuckin’ film to watch. It looks great and might be the best aspect of the movie overall. But also Schumacher crafts the characters and their struggles well by continually showing us how each person responds to one stressful situation after another. Everything is a test, there’s practically no breathing room and Schumacher’s right in everyone’s face to capture it all.
Appropriately the Tigerland ending is the best part of the film. You’ve spent ample time with these characters and the environment in which they struggle to adapt so you truly feel for these guys when you realize they had it (sorta) easy up to this point. First thing the drill instructor does when the troops arrive is catch everyone off guard by firing his gun in the air and telling them to hit the ground. He wants to see how fast they can move when the shit hits the fan in the blink of an eye. Then he has them march for days with only one hour of sleep per day and so on. You get the point, these instructors bring the war to the recruits.
The other major character that we get to know is Jim (Matthew Davis (Legally Blonde)). We’re supposed to be experiencing these events through his eyes but there are a couple of times when the camera goes beyond what Jim sees and knows (an oversight on the filmmakers’ part I guess). Unlike Bozz he enlisted because he had to know what war was like. He mentions that he’s not sure if he’s even for the war but he’s soul searching. Well Jim eventually realizes that this shit ain’t for folks with that line of thinking. Boot camp is brutal and the tactics and views that he becomes exposed to slowly turn him more towards Bozz’s anti-war stance.
But it’s Tigerland that breaks Jim. He’d been able to endure the previous training without a ton of problems but when it’s show time he can’t hack it. The merciless routine and exercises drain all life from him physically and mentally. And the journey of this particular character is what makes the movie as strong as it is. It’s not really about Bozz. It’s about Jim.
Sure the film may be kinda corny at times, too idealistic in its beliefs that everything will ultimately turn out alright, and Bozz may be too simplistic of a character with seemingly no motivation for helping out the young recruits at every turn, and the cinematography might be very of its time (late 90’s), but goddammit this thing has heart. It’s an intimate little piece that’s all about the characters and how they cope. It’s very book-ish feeling (which is odd because it’s not based on a book) and I’m not sure if I can describe what I mean by that. Maybe it’s that the story is so small and the way everything develops it feels like it wasn’t envisioned for the big screen but for a more scrutinizing-ly personal way to be digested.
This isn’t anything you haven’t seen before. Full Metal Jacket, Heartbreak Ridge and G.I.Jane are just a few that also show how grueling boot camp can be. But Tigerland is a damn good one. In fact it’s right up there among my favorite Vietnam pictures with Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, Eastern Condors (could be number one) and…I guess Platoon? Missing in Action would be on there but technically that takes place after the war.