Tunnel Rats (1968 Tunnel Rats) Review
This is probably going to be a hugely ill-informed comment on the abilities of the director of Tunnel Rats but the quality of Uwe Boll's films are in inverse proportion to the size of his budgets. Or, for the benefit of those without an A Level in maths, the less money he has at his disposal, the better the film. Back in the day when he could command the presence of B-list stars in his films (as opposed to the almost complete unknowns he is forced to cast now) and see his movies enjoy a theatrical release, his films were indeed a ropey old lot. Now he's reduced to paying for his films with Green Shield stamps, he's producing the best work of his career. It may be that were everyone who reads this review to donate a pound to my keep-Boll-in-business campaign, the £130 that we raise would drive the man on to produce his masterpiece.
Tunnel Rats isn't Uwe Boll's best film but it's very much better than those who negatively score his films on IMdB long before their actual release. After the funny and absurd Postal and the genuinely nasty Seed, Boll heads to Vietnam and to a film on the tunnel rats, or the division of the US Army responsible for infiltrating and shutting down the network of tunnels used by the Viet Cong to hide, to transport weapons and to organise attacks. Contending with the Viet Cong who remained within the tunnels, with booby traps and in cramped and uncomfortable conditions, their success rate was low. As a bunch of new recruits join the tunnel rats under the command of Sergeant Vic Hollowborn (Michael Paré), they get to know one another and prepare for the next day's action. At first light, they open the first of that day's tunnels...
No matter that Tunnel Rats is so very different from any previous Boll film, it remains the fact that he never strays far from horror. Tunnel Rats could be amongst the most horrific of Vietnam films, not on account of any examination of the morality of the war but of the various means by which soldiers on both sides are picked off. There's a particularly gruesome hanging at the start of the film, a very nasty bamboo spike through a US soldier's neck and more than enough shootings, stabbings and sundry other flesh wounds to satisfy the average horror fan. Indeed, such is Boll's staging of the action that Tunnel Rats is less a war movie than a horror film, one in which the part of the typical gang of teens is replaced by the US soldiers while the Viet Cong take the place of the more typical zombies, rednecks or werewolves. Much as he did in Seed, a more straightforward horror movie, Boll lets his camera linger on the blood and the violence. And should the opportunity arise to reveal further horrors, Boll can't resist. Having one of his soldiers trapped in a tunnel by the corpse of a Viet Cong fighter, he hacks at its limbs until there is space enough to squeeze past. But when he gets it right, as he does with the drowned victim of a Viet Cong trap, Tunnel Rats approaches being very good indeed.
However, it wouldn't be Boll if there weren't some obvious lifts from other movies. The structure of the film brings Full Metal Jacket to mind, with Boll's mealtime conversations being his take on Kubrick's training. Michael Paré's Hollowborn is Platoon's Tom Berenger by another name while his most obvious lift is a full circle around one of his soldiers not unlike Coppola's spin around Martin Sheen in the hotel room opening of Apocalypse Now! But perhaps his biggest steal is from the Why? poster, which was once as commonplace on student walls as Dark Side of the Moon was in their record collections. Boll's victims die in suitably poster-genic ways, their arms outstretched, their knees buckled and their bodies riddled with bullets from a Viet Cong soldier almost out of sight but very much out of focus. Tunnel Rats gets better near its end as the US soldiers crawl deeper into the network of tunnels, finding VC fighters, a mother looking after her children and the bodies of their colleagues.
In spite of the length of his list of influences, Tunnel Rats really isn't at all bad. A better writer would have created more authentic dialogue but the structure is sound. The early part of the film in the US army camp, with its touching on a boxing match, a card sharp hustling another soldier and talk of home, introduces the characters and sets a relaxed pace. Come the time when the soldiers descend into the tunnels, we do lose sight of who they are. It may be that Boll didn't define his characters quite well enough but his decision to light his tunnels with little more than torchlight doesn't help matters. But ignore that and accept that these are, in the best horror tradition, nameless victims and it becomes a wise choice with the dim lighting adding to how tense and how realistic the situation in the tunnels becomes.
No matter how much Tunnel Rats might be praised, it's still a Uwe Boll film and that will sway many people's opinions of it. There's a rather pedantic post on the IMdB that lists the many technical errors in the film, such as Boll's choice of guns, vehicles and other weaponry but even as one who hates movie nitpicking, Boll's that'll-do-ness is still evident. The room in which the Viet Cong plan their assault on the American soldiers is stripped of its flags and is reused as a VC storeroom. It appears a third time as a room in which a young Vietnamese woman lives with her two children. It's also likely that the tunnels are but one short stretch of tunnel that Boll floods, pitches and wires with booby traps. But such complaints seem very minor when Boll does so many things right. Tunnel Rats is often tense, grim and does a fine job of reflecting the narrow odds of success that the real-life tunnel rats faced when descending into VC tunnels. As Hamburger Hill documented one battle in Vietnam, so Tunnel Rats does the same for those fighting the war underground. Boll's film is prone to taking sides, only make a very late effort to understand the Viet Cong response, but Tunnel Rats does so many things right that it's possible to overlook Boll's cost-cutting. It's also perfectly possible to see that the director is not the hack he's meant to be and if lower budgets mean more films like this from Boll, then all the better.
At first, Tunnel Rats doesn't look bad but just as Postal and Seed were framed at 1.78:1 off what several sources said were 2.35:1 films, so too is Tunnel Rats. Again, it is suggested that Tunnel Rats was framed for 2.35:1 and the outtakes on the DVD seem to confirm this but Metrodome have released this in a format best suited to fill widescreen televisions. Even if that is the case, Tunnel Rats looks reasonable enough with the picture being sharp and colourful. It also looks the part. It's not as rich a visual experience as Apocalypse Now! or The Deer Hunter but, in not expecting Boll's eye to be on a par with Coppola's or Cimino's, it certainly looks authentic enough. Things become much more difficult to watch when the action moves underground but the darkness is a deliberate choice. However, the cutting between the action back in the camp offers a brief reprise from the blackness in the tunnels.
There is a choice between DD2.0 and DD5.1 but for the most part there is very little between them. When the film is in the tunnels, both soundtracks are suitably claustrophobic and tight to the viewer. Instead, the real difference between them comes with the Viet Cong attack on the US army camp, which, with its shooting, grenades and air strike, sounds much better in the DD5.1 surround track. In particular, there is good use of the surround channels both there and in the escape of two of the soldiers through an otherwise quiet jungle. However, there are no subtitles.
Without a commentary from Uwe Boll, we have an Interview with Uwe Boll (14m25s), in which the director responds to a series of written questions. Boll takes in the production, why he set about making a Vietnam war film and why he focused on the tunnels of Cú Chi and how he achieved some of the special effects. Things take a more current turn when the director is asked to compare the Vietnam war to that now occurring in Iraq but should the BBC ever require a foreign correspondent, Boll should stick to his movies.
A short Behind the Scenes (5m59s) feature follows, with all the on-the-set interviews, glimpses of the production and clips from the film that one might expect. The ending is rather sudden, though, as if someone just pressed STOP mid-interview. A set of Outtakes (4m37s) follows, presented in 4:3, but some of them don't look as though they were ever destined to be part of the film. Finally, there is a Trailer (1m49s).