Southern Comfort

Okay, this group of National Guardsmen (Peter Coyote, Powers Boothe, Keith Carradine, Fred Ward, others) are on one of them training exercises, right? Basically, they gotta go out into the Louisiana swamp with a map, try to locate this one particular place. To practice their navigation skills. Most of them aren’t taking the job too seriously, paying more attention to their plans to hook up with some whores when they’re done. I mean they’re carrying guns, but with blanks, because who are they gonna shoot at anyway. There’s no enemy in this exercise.

And then they get to some water, and they realize either they’re reading the map wrong or the water has shifted and the chunk of land they’re supposed to find is now a chunk of underwater.

They come across somebody’s camp site, where there’s some flayed animals hanging around, and a couple of canoes. And after some debate they decide, against Peter Coyote’s better judgment, to borrow the canoes. But they leave a note.

Southern ComfortWhen they’re out in the water they look back and see some “indigenous” Cajun dudes on the shore, apparently the owners of the canoes. While they’re trying to yell to them to read the note, one of these soldiers decides to be a wiseguy, shoots a bunch of blanks in the Cajuns’ direction with a machine gun. Ha ha, very funny.

So then the Cajuns fire back with real bullets, and blow Peter Coyote’s damn head off. And you can imagine where the movie would go from there. Directed by Walter Hill, this disturbing swampland war story is, I’m sure, supposed to be about Vietnam. But there is no way to watch it today without thinking about Iraq.

I mean here you got this group of americans, some of them acting like knuckleheads. They come in this place and they don’t understand the culture, they sort of look down on them. They don’t speak the language or understand the way of life. They borrow people’s property without permission, figuring it’s not a big deal. And inevitably the people whose land they’re intruding on take it the wrong way. They fight back. They set up booby traps. And they know the land better. They know where to hide and how to track them.

Eventually the soldiers get a prisoner (the late great Brion James). Because he’s Cajun, they lump him in with the people who killed Peter Coyote, even though they really have no idea if he’s connected or not. Some of them treat him badly, punch him in the face, start talking about revenge. One of them starts acting completely insane, runs around with a cross painted on his chest, setting off dynamite. And the others aren’t really sure what to say about it. Kind of like, “Uh, boss, are you sure we should be stacking up naked people and taking novelty pictures of them?” Things get out of control in these situations.

And then when the last survivors make it into town, they have no idea who are the “good Cajuns” and who are trying to kill them. That’s how it works in Vietnam or Iraq or Louisiana. We’re not talking shirts and skins here, it’s hard to tell who’s who. (Luckily, they don’t kill any civilians in the movie. If only reality could be so lucky.)

This is a good movie, but right now it’s impossible to separate the story from reality. It’s just such a perfect symbol for the inevitable failure of this type of business. It doesn’t matter that the soldiers really didn’t do anything worse than borrow a canoe without permission and then act like a jackass. A clash is gonna happen. They’re barging in where they’re not wanted, they don’t understand who they are dealing with, and who they are dealing with don’t understand them. They are outsiders who are trampling and threatening. And they don’t even understand the type of impression they are making. It’s not really their fault. It’s the situation they’ve been put in. There’s just no winning.

I don’t know much about Cajuns but in the case of the soldiers, the movie just has a real ring of truth to it. You just know, from knowing people, that this is how it really is. It’s human nature. You throw some guys into a strange land with guns, at least a couple of them are gonna be assholes and gonna ruin it for everybody else. I mean, REALLY fuckin ruin it. That’s what happens. That’s war. That’s southern comfort.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 23rd, 2004 at 6:59 am and is filed under Drama, Reviews, Thriller, War. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

22 Responses to “Southern Comfort”

  1. Kickass review, Vern. I LOVE me some Walter Hill flicks (I even enjoyed Undisputed; hopefully that doesn’t make my opinion completely suspect) and always have. The guy shoots action in a way that not enough guys do anymore, or even seem to care about how to shoot it (see Michael Pigfucker Bay). Like your points about geography in scenes and all that, all of which I agree with. I hope he comes back and throws down some more Badass Cinema for us – the last thing he did was Broken Trail, and while it was a well acted Western with a good story, I could have used more of the old Walter Hill asskickery. Anyway, well done piece, man -

  2. What I dig about Hill is that he cares about more than just the action.

    He’s more concerned with telling/retelling old but true stories about larger than life figures, and what they do or don’t do as the hero or adversary. That’s the true punch of his best movies, if you ask me.

    THE WARRIORS – Gang of punks fight all the way home, suffer some casualties, and once they are safe in dump Coney Island: “This is what we fought to get back to?” The sequence in the subway with the upper class Prom kids is classic, the best scene if you ask me.

    JOHNNY HANDSOME – Mickey Rourke born a freak who can’t speak properly, gets screwed over and his buddy killed, and in jail gets a new pretty face by surgery. But once free, does he pursue revenge or let it go and pursue a new life with his woman?

    EXTREME PREJUDICE – Nick Nolte the sheriff and Powers Boothe the drug lord, both former childhood pals, both fucked the same woman, neither want to kill the other but…..there will be blood.

    UNDISPUTED – rapist/champ boxer(or did he rape?) dukes it out in money-racket prison match with Snipes the prodigy who pissed his talent away with a stupid crime.

    THE LONG RIDERS – A loose-knit family, the best at something they rather enjoy, which is robbing banks and trains….but they don’t know when to quit when they’re ahead.

    SOUTHERN COMFORT – Vern covered the Vietnam (or even Iraq today) allegory.

    THE DRIVER – Ryan O’Neal drives his wheels off…ultimately for nothing.

    I could go on, but all that is why Walter Hill is great for me. He tries to make, if not always successful, films about “something.”

  3. There’s something to be commended about that, to be sure, but don’t most of the great action directors strive for that? Isn’t that why they’re considered great to begin with? Leone, Woo, Cameron, Spielberg, Verhoeven, all those guys, they take big, broad archetypes and then play around with them, subvert them and find some theme to play around with and present. I’m not saying Hill isn’t a great one, I’m just saying he’s not breaking new ground with his stuff.

  4. When was the last time Woo was “great”? FACE/OFF?

  5. Hey guys why did you neglect to list ‘Supernova’ when running down his filmography? I enjoyed this one, “Southern Comfort”, I too am one of the two people who actually liked “Undisputed” so it’s nice to meet you A.J. I think we are going to have some lonely meetings for our ‘Undisputed’ fan club though. Dan O’Bannon will highly disagree but I like the additions Hill made to ‘Alien’, making Ripley a woman & Ash being an android, as that was some of my favorite things from that film. It may be commonplace and even a cliche today but making Ash the embodiment of ‘the company’ added such a wonderful layer to the story.

    The last time Woo was great to me was “Hard Boiled”. The only one of his U.S. films that I liked was “Hard Target” (okay I confess to also having a soft spot “M:I-2″ on the count of how dumb it is (fun dumb that is not Bay dumb). I was never able to get into “Face/Off” no matter how hard I tried. The film left me cold, sure it was better than “Broken Arrow” (and his last two U.S. films) and it did have emotion in it than the typical action film but it just leaves me cold. I blame casting Cage as I was never a fan of his and must admit both his performances there grate on me. That said Woo’s latest films “Red Cliff” parts I & II are very good. I hope he is able to keep that quality up because those two were a wonderful return to quality film-making.

  6. I heard good things about Red Cliff, though I haven’t seen it yet.

    As for Walter Hill, that guy has made some of my all time favorite movies. Crossroads, Streets Of Fire, all 96 HRS., Hard Times.

    I still haven’t seen The Driver yet since I can’t find the damned thing. I just found Southern Comfort at a Blockbuster nearby so I’ll have to rent that one.

    I can’t wait for St. Vincent assuming that’s still happening, I haven’t heard much about it lately.

  7. Geoffreyjar – I ignore SUPERNOVA because, if one believes in the traditional Auteur Theory, SUPERNOVA wasn’t “A Walter Hill Film” because he basically said fuck it and quit when nothing was going right. I guess someday I might check it out to see it out of curiosity as a Hillphile, but it’ll be akin to David Fincher’s ALIEN 3: You quit trying to figure out what was Fincher and what was (stupid) studio orders, and rather not compare it with his other works, i.e. SE7EN and FIGHT CLUB.

    Hill did give a few good touches on ALIEN, but having read one of his script drafts…I think in some ways he threatened to churn out a cliche slasherfest in spite of those nice details you described. Consider that (useless) sex scene of Ripley and Dallas. Oh and I believe it was Hill who also decided upon the ALIEN sequel to be “THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN fights Alien hive” (which of course became ALIENS), and this before Cameron was hired.

    I think Ridley Scott/O’Bannon took the good Hill contributions, discarded those that didn’t work, exploited the intelligentsia potential instead of dodging it (which most ALIEN rip-offs usually do) and turned a pretty good idea into a fucking classic, and quite frankly, the best shot film of Ridley’s career.

    hamslime – Other Hill shit I like range from his fascinating if misunderstood WILD BILL, his decent TRESPASS, his GERONIMO, and while I didn’t care for it overall I dig that in RED HEAT, the badass action hero isn’t the American cop, but the Soviet copper. You don’t usually see that in the Reagan Decade.

    now STREETS OF FIRE is interesting, maybe more as an idea than in execution, as I think I said elsewhere at this joint. An electrifying opening with great editing, lively music, the invading gang shot in the shadows with oozing effectiveness, and so forth. Too bad rest of FIRE wasn’t as good as that, but Michael Pare was a solid lead, Amy Magidan (spelled right?) was fun as the tough sidekick (she even knocks out Bill Paxton), and hey Willem Dafoe in rubber overalls. I think many would agree that the movie stalls like a mother fucker in the 3rd Act. Still, decent.

    Yet I have one angry itch at STREETS, and its not with the picture itself. You see, back in 1984 Universal thought SOF was gonna be a blockbuster, and they were banking on it, enough that they totally cannibalized the advertising budgets of several smaller releases to supplement the SOF ad budget…like RUMBLE FISH and Alex Cox’s REPO MAN. Both died quickly in theatres, and STREETS of course crashed and burned.

    As much as I love Hill, and kinda liked STREETS, I think a damn fine Francis Ford Coppola effort and that plate of shrimp cult classic are a hell lot better and more worthwhile pictures than SOF, if you ask me. But shit happens.

  8. I agree that the middle isn’t as great as the begining and end. I also wouldn’t defend it until my last dying breath because for one, I’m absolutely retarded for Michael Pare’ (I know I’m going to blindly love Road To Hell no matter how big a turd it is. I also like his movies that Uwe Boll directed…sue me.) and a lot of my love for that movie has to do with my early experiences with it. I also like the music as well as the style of it.

    As for the advertising thing, that sucks for Rumble Fish, but I didn’t really care for Repo Man. Repo Man along with Romper Stomper I will forever hate, mainly because they were shoved down my throat for a good portion of my high school years and into my tewnties. (I hung out with a lot of gutter punks and wanna be skin heads so those two movies played EVERYWHERE I hung out at, EVERYDAY) I realize I’m probably in the minority about those movies and I wouldn’t go so far as to call them “bad” but if I am ever forced to sit through them again, I may have to eat a gun.

    Of the two, I might give Repo Man another shot in a few years if I’m in the mood, but Romper Stomper reminds me too much of some of the shitheads I hung out with back in the day and quite frankly I’d rather the memories of them stay dead and buried.

  9. Woo may have been beaten down in recent years (though I’m holding out hope for Red Cliff) but that doesn’t change the fact that the man pushed the boundaries of a genre to the edge. He is to action movies what Frank Miller was to comics before hearing his name made you wince: both completely changed the iconography of their fields (action movies and comics) and everyone who has worked in either field in the years since has borrowed from them at least in some ways, if only by taking set pieces and characters to extremes that they couldn’t have if the lines hadn’t already been crossed.

  10. I really didn’t like FACE/OFF one little bit and I thought that MI2 was soul-destroyingly awful in ways I didn’t know cinema could be. I was an enormous fan of HARD BOILED (and to a slightly lesser extent, THE KILLER) and thoroughly enjoyed HARD TARGET but everything else Woo did in the U.S. left me cold. I never saw WINDTALKERS and never intend to, but I caught a glimpse of the RED CLIFF trailer last night and thought it might be worth a watch.

  11. To RRA
    I was being sarcastic with the ‘Supernova’ comment by the way. I will warn you that if you do intend to watch it for whatever reason I will tell you that it is indeed an awful movie and have gone as far as to say it’s one of the worst science fiction movies I’ve ever seen. If you want to see the story (or a similar story rather) done better, just watch Danny Boyl’s “Sunshine” as it’s a virtual remake of “Supernova”, just not shitty (or not AS shitty depending on your thoughts on the genre switch half-way through).

    I will also agree that not all of Hill’s additions to the ‘Alien’ script where good and can fully understand why O’Bannon was pissed, except that O’Bannon was pissed more because his precious words where being changed and he though Hill was trying to change ‘just enough’ up to get O’Bannon and his partner’s name knocked off the credits. But I particularly liked the Ash-is-an-android addition for reasons stated already (O’Bannon actually seemed to have hated this addition the most, on the commentary track he bitches and bitches about how the scene/addition is completely useless and stupid). As you said Scott is truly the real savior on the film. He came in and showed a talent he never would again and successfully fused both treatments to make a masterpiece rather than an above average scifi/monster film (O’Bannon draft) or above average slasher/monster film (Hill draft).

    To Brendan
    Yeah Woo is most definitely one of the most imitated directors today. I think he is one of the five (or two) directors working today who know how to use slow-motion correctly. Such a shame that many will refuse to give his older films a shot because they are foreign and when I did finally talk someone into viewing “The Killer” & “Hard Boiled” they came back and told what awful piles of shit they were .
    Speaking of Woo & Hill anyone every read Hill’s “The Killer” remake draft?

    To Jam
    Now I don’t feel so alone in the world not liking Face/Off, thanks Jam! Whenever I express my opinion on it to even fellow die-hard Hong Kong action they they give me ‘the look’ and some even argue that it’s his greatest film. But really both Red Cliff(s) are very good and highly recommend checking them out. They are on DVD/BluDVD in Hong Kong already and will be released later this year in America via Magnolia but I heard they will be editing the two films into one for international release. I do not know if they are still doing this but be warned for the future to be on the safe side.

  12. RED CLIFF opens in Ireland on Friday, so I may go see it next week. It’s 148minutes long, so it would seem to be the first one rather than some amalgamation of the two.

    I’m afraid, Geoffrey, that my expectations are not high. The buildup to FACE/OFF indicated that it would, contrary to all current medical knowledge, the explosive combination of high-concept, Woo, Cage, Travolta et al would in fact, blow my tits apart. This did not happen.

    As I recall, the biggest difference between Hong Kong Woo and HollyWoo is the increase in cuts. In HARD BOILED, the film played out like some kind of glorious musical, with Tony Leung and Chow Yun Fat jumping from one massive, perfectly-choreographed wide-shot to another. But HollyWoo seemed to cut to the slow-motion mediums and close-ups way too early (HARD BOILED being a notable exception – I never saw the Dolph Lungren one).

    I’ll give it a shot, though.

  13. We must remember about M:I 2, that Cruise effectively took Woo’s supposed 3 hour and 30 minute workprint edit and with editors effectively made the final cut that went to theatres, without Mr. Woo’s participation. Woo was pissed, but he played quiet because of that Hollywood games bullshit you know?

    But really, Woo is useless to me at this point. If RED CLIFF is his comeback, hey thats good if it truely is. Otherwise…WINDTALKERS was a lame attempt of his to go “legitimate serious” as a filmmaker, i.e. Oscar bait, and it blew up in his face. PAYCHECK was odd, a forgettable sci-fi thriller made by someone who doesn’t like sci-fi. Weird huh?

    hamslime – Remember DONNIE DARKO before it was hijacked by the dipshits of my generation? That’s the story of REPO MAN back in the 80s.

    REPO MAN is special in that it was a counter-cultural picture, produced when such movies were out of vogue in Reagan Decade Hollywood. If anything, I would compare it to that Clash album SANDINISTA!

    The Clash were mostly known for LONDON CALLING or their self-titled debut album, but if they set a high bar for their genre with CALLING, then SANDINISTA! went over the bar…and over most people’s heads, even mcuh of the fanbase.

    Like REPO MAN, SANDINISTA! has some immortal great moments, some doozy too-experimental-for-their-own-good-profound moments, many solid/decent scenes, some blatant filler….yet overall, it kicks ass still none the less. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but shit I hate tea.

    Interesting thing about that metaphor, Alex Cox would later hire Joe Strummer to compose his failure WALKER, and appeared in his STRAIGHT TO HELL.

  14. Not sure why Face/Off is attracting so much attracting so much vemon, I would never argue for it being equal to his Hong Kong stuff, but it is a solid, well directed and acted movie with a crazy premise that they had the balls to treat completely seriously, and also some fucking spectacular action set pieces that no one else in American cinema is even trying to top. If Woo had made his American career out of making films of that quality or higher I don’t think we’d be in a position to complain.
    MI2 blows.

  15. Yeah I knew that Woo’s original cut was like 3 hours long and Cruise fixed that. With how much studios love double dipping movies on video you’d think they would have done a director’s cut release for M:I-2.

    Again when I say I enjoy M:I-2 it’s on that train wreck disaster-level. You can tell Cruise butted into every single creative decision on that thing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that goes so out of it’s way to make the lead star look like the coolest thing you will ever see in your life.

    ‘Windtalkers’ was depressing. ‘Bullet In The Head’ is one of my favorite war movies so looked forward to it. ‘Broken Arrow’ Woo had the excuse that the producer under-minded every single decision he made (Woo wanted the script changed but the producer (who was good buddies with the writer) said no. On top of that ‘Windtalkers’ had a good premise, 100s of movies have been made about WWII but none about this subject. So what does Woo & friends do: make the most generic war movie you would have ever seen in your life. The movie is about Native Americans thus the lead character is white (he also feels he needs to make up for a past wrong and he has a nurse who swoons over him). The Native Americans are depicted as virginal all-good people. Their is the nasty old racist who converts at the end when the guy he was treating like shit the whole time saves his life. Worst damn movie he made in my opinion and for a long while lost most of my respect for him after it.

    Nothing to say about ‘Paycheck’ or ‘Blackjack’. There is nothing in either movie to inspire any debate of any kind. Just two generic as all hell action films.

    Funny thing Brendan is that I agree with all those points you make about ‘Face/Off’. Yet the film still leaves me cold for some reason.

    Well I hope you guys enjoy ‘Red Cliff’ I & II when you do see it. It has definitely restored “some” faith I have in him. Well for his Hong Kong films anyway. When his last two Hollywood prospective projects have been ‘Spy Hunter’ (based on the game) with The Rock and ‘He-Man’ I’m not so keen on him returning to Hollywood.

    Never seen ‘Repo Man’ keep pushing it off but if you guys recommend it then I should push it up my list then.

  16. I think everyone has that kind of movie, where there’s nothing wrong with it technically, but something about it just doesn’t click, and leaves you cold. State of Play was like that for me, where the whole movie was well written, well acted, with solid directing and a nice twisty plot that was interesting. But for reasons I could never explain, for some reason the whole thing just sort of played out in front of me, withou my ever engaging with it on any kind of emotional or intellectual level.
    If my memory serves me correctly, at least 90% of MI2’s running time was devoted to slow motion shots of Tom Cruise spinning through the air, his hair gloriously billowing with the wind, with another 2% being given to Thandie Newtons boobs and ass.

  17. I remember walking out of FACE/OFF a little confused, because I’d hardwired myself for believing it would be the shit-of-shit. I think I was even defending it’s (many) weaknesses to college buddies I’d dragged along to it for about twenty minutes before the hollow irritation that had been building just dissolved into my bloodstream.

    With MI:2 (or however the fuck you want to abbreviate it) I was looking forward to it because:

    – the original was extremely entertaining. Sure, it was a bunch of action-suspense-sequences, but these were Brian De Palma action-suspense-sequences and he had the money and a Cruise who wasn’t sure of how much of an action star he was supposed to play it… and goddamn, but that Langley vault sequence is sublime…

    – John Woo was due some sort of a comeback. In retrospect, maybe he wasn’t the best guy to take on something that was hinged on suspense, but perhaps that should be the joy of the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE films, that every director should do one in his own style, and push that style as far as he can.

    – The writer was Robert Towne. Robert CHINATOWN Towne.

    … but it was like the film had taken a look at what I’d liked about the first one and done all they could to make sure the second was nothing like it. It had the potentially-dangerous love-interest, it had the heist, it had the bad-guy/good-guy flip at the start, but it treated the whole thing like it was a Tom Cruise Shampoo commercial… Damn, I really hated that MI:2. Bad suss if Woo was held over a barrel by Tom Cruise et al, but damn did it stink. Probably made a lot of money for someone, though. Fuckers.

    This has strayed pretty off-topic for an old SOUTHERN COMFORT review (great film, by the way, Brion James’ best role probably but don’t quote me ’cause I might not be too familiar on his other stuff) but when is someone going to let John Woo do a musical? I hate musicals, but no-one could possibly watch the last twenty minutes of HARD BOILED and not think: “This guy needs to be doing everything from MAMMA MIA to NINE… but with guns…”

    Now that I think about a little further, what about that Outkast movie from a few years back, that weird underdog/gangster thing that never really held together? Jesus Christ but wouldn’t John Woo have been good for that…

  18. -on the commentary John Woo said he was never interested in doing a spy / thriller film and he ended up just doing it because for a chance to work with Cruise (also I’m sure his manager coerced him into doing it as it was Paramount’s ‘A’ film of that year)

    -Woo has said on many occasions that he really wants to direct a musicale

    to get back on topic:
    um.. “Southern Comfort” is awesome!

  19. “The writer was Robert Towne. Robert CHINATOWN Towne. ”

    Jam – You mean Robert DAYS OF THUNDER Towne?

    Now to be fair, Towne is like most scriptwriters a good mercenary scripter. I mean why not job out to get a nice paycheck? Can’t blame the guy. But he was (and still is, I assume) a buddy of Tom Cruise, which was why Towne penned alot of those Cruise vehicles like DAYS and Sydney Pollack’s THE FIRM and also those first two MISSION pictures.

    Though if you ask me, the best of that bunch would have to be DePalma’s MISSION movie. That dude and Cruise were obviously having a good time in making a Hitchcockian “Wronged Man” spy thriller, even if its a tad convoluted as fuck.

  20. I pesonally like Robert “Tequila Sunrise” Towne, but I’ll accept Days of Thunder or Chinatown.

    I also saw that he wrote Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan. I haven’t seen that one since I was a kid, but remember liking it quite a bit. I haven’t seen it on DVD, but has anyone seen it recently? Is it as good as I remember? If it isn’t just lie to me and say it is.

  21. Mate, its as good as you remembered it.

  22. I only mention Towne because I was trying to persuade a friend to come see MI:2 with me, and in desperation (the friend wasn’t fond of Cruise and hated John Woo… come to think of it, I can’t remember why I was bothering in the first place) I used Towne’s name to try and sell it to him.

    “C’mon man, you like CHINATOWN don’t you?”
    “Well sure, but -”
    “But WHAT? You’re not a SISSY are you?!”

    And so forth. I saw it alone and hated myself.

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