Tuesday, June 30, 2020

In short: Off Limits (1988)

Vietnam, 1968, during the Tet Offensive. CID Sergeant’s McGriff (Willem Dafoe) and Perkins (Gregory Hines) are the kind of racist, violent shitheels you’d expect in that role during this time. However, when the murder of a local prostitute leads them on the trail of a whole series of murders of prostitutes during the last year, all showing a lot of disturbing parallels, and their investigation begins to suggest the serial killer to be an American officer, they don’t back down but go out of their ways to catch him, risking life and career. Of course, they are still treating the Vietnamese as well as enlisted US soldiers like crap while they are doing it, and can’t spend five minutes without going on about how terrible a country they deem Vietnam to be, so it’s probably just another day at the office for these two.

At times, Christopher Crowe’s attempt to transfer 80s cop movie clichés to the more interesting background of the Vietnam War, actually does manage to make these clichés somewhat more interesting and lively; at other times, I couldn’t shake the feeling the director uses the background as an excuse to be more racist and have more unpleasant main characters than he could have gotten away with in a film set in the 80s. Crowe certainly knows how to stage a chase scene and other action movie core elements, giving them a grimy and dirty edge that fits the rest of a film whose Vietnam feels a lot like New York in action movies made at this time by people like James Glickenhaus.

The plot’s not terribly good at leading us from action scene to action scene, though. Crowe’s script never really manages to make the actual investigation terribly interesting – and honestly, if you don’t guess the whodunit very early on, I’d be very surprised. The thin characterisation of everyone involved here doesn’t make the plot any more interesting either. There’s a desperate attempt to humanise at least Dafoe’s character a little with a romance plot between him and a French novitiate sister played by the not terribly French (but lovely) Amanda Pays, but it’s so perfunctorily written, it doesn’t do much beyond adding scenes to the movie.

The characters are so bare-bones, even actors with as much heft as Dafoe, Hines or Fred Ward don’t manage to suggest much depth to these men; only house favourite Scott Glenn has an opportunity to actually do something of interest acting-wise, but he’s not in too many scenes.

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