Heartbreak Ridge, the 1986 war film by Clint Eastwood, boasts a plot so familiar that it’s not difficult to understand why this film’s been overlooked in the vast canon that is his directing career. The film wastes no time indulging in a moralistic foray about the cost of war and violence (as war films to tend to exhibit) but instead glamorizes it, turning what could be a serious piece of work into more light accessible entertainment. The film never tries to be more than what you’ll find on the surface and it is on this exercise that the film mostly succeeds.

Clint Eastwood (Director, Writer, Producer, and Star credits here) is Gunnery Sergeant Highway. We first find him in central lock-up for public intoxication and lewd behavior, chomping on a large Cohiba. He is impressing his fellow inmates with an indecipherably gruff retelling of battles he fought long ago and it seems one of his tales tickled a sour bone. A man draws a knife on Highway and threatens to kill him. Unflinchingly, Highway takes him down with a swift blow to the head and exclaims, “Why don’t you sit there and bleed for awhile before you taste some real pain?” Clint Eastwood is one of the only men who can still kick-ass and take names at a ripe-old age not only through brute force but also with searing and salty dialogue. This scene was a perfect opener for the narrative that follows.

As a punishment for his many accounts of insubordination, he is forced into early retirement but is assigned one last mission: He must return to the area from where he came and train a platoon of Marines at the military base stationed there. As a man who is slowly coming to terms with his place in the hierarchy of life, he accepts the job with a short but genuine smile. This is a man who walks with the Medal of Honor on his chest among countless other commendations. He’s put in his hours already. It’s his time to let go and let someone else do his work for him.

The superior that greets Highway at the Recon military base is the young Major Powers (Everett Mcgill), a narcissistic and equally crusty man that grits his teeth with less wit and wisdom than the seasoned veteran standing before him. He looks at him no longer than a second before saying that “Highway is a man you keep behind glass and break only in case of WAR!”. Out of context, this line has B-movie vibe to it. This film, however, transcends B-movie stature because Clint Eastwood infuses it with enough class and boisterous dialogue to boost it ahead of the films that inspired it.

The Major assigns him to a group of rowdy, pampered misfits (Mario Van Peebles at his obnoxious best, Peter Koch, Vincent Irizarry) that he must transform into a group of hardened warriors. This is no easy task, however, as these boys have the same proclivities for insubordination as does Highway, leading to the idea of the broken man breaking the broken boys. He figures if he can fix this outfit of scoundrels he could potentially redeem himself. This overused scenario seldom delves deeper than the surface but Eastwood polishes this familiar tale with enough nuances to make it his own. Unfortunately, The script has some trouble with progress. The caricatures that call themselves Marines qualitatively change from ambivalent boys into consenting warriors over the course of one fight scene. I would have liked to see a more emotionally resonant and deliberate transformation, but as stated before, this film tries no more than to be a simple story of about a man who transforms a wily group of brats into soldiers.

Along the way, Highway runs into his ex-wife (Marsha Mason) at the local bar. She propagates the second story line, which is altogether weaker than the main one. Highway’s questions boil down to “Where did I go wrong?” and “Remember the good times?” and offer nothing new in the way of reconciliation. Eastwood’s character is so endearing that you sympathize with him, but I don’t feel we are supposed to because his ex-wife truly resents Highway’s affair with war. Unfortunately, Mason seemingly phoned this role in and thus lacks any leverage in the emotional department.

Despite the shortcomings, the film is a success because it doesn’t tire itself out with exposition on the cost of war. Instead, it chooses to be nothing more than a fun romp filled with action, uppercuts, snarls, and blithe phrases usually alluding to scat and the homoerotic nature by which the platoon treats each other. In the film, one of Highway’s favorite phrases is, “Improvise. Observe. Adapt”. Upon completion of Heartbreak Ridge, I say “Rehash. Improve. Delight”.

Kyle Kogan is a film critic living in Chicago.

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