Saturday, November 20, 2004

Review: "The Beast" (1988)

Most Americans didn't know anything about Afghanistan until we invaded after 9/11. One of the most significant events in the country's history, the Soviet Invasion, has received little attention in Hollywood. "Rambo III" used it as a backdrop while Sylvester Stalone fought the Russians alongside members of the Afghan resistance. You've got to imagine that the film is an awkward experience for Rambo fans these days as the main character and American envoys show future members of the Taliban Militia how to blow stuff up real good. But that's okay, because there does exist at least one other film that took a more serious and sober look at this conflict.

"The Beast" refers to a Soviet T-62 tank that is commanded by Daskal (George Dzundza) and manned by Golikov (Stephen Baldwin), Kaminski (Don Harvey) and Koverchenko (Jason Patric). After they massacre an Afghan village full of peasants, Koverchenko starts to have doubts about his commander's sanity. Eventually, the increasingly paranoid Daskal leaves Koverchenko tied to a rock to die as the tank continues its way back to Russia. Before he bakes to death, he is found by Taj (Steven Bauer) and his band of Afghan rebels. Although his comrades are wary, Taj decides to recruit Koverchenko to help them deliver justice upon this lone tank before it reaches the border.

War films on the whole tend to be very loud and hectic. In the case of films like "Saving Private Ryan", such things are appropriate to the story. "The Beast", however, is more concerned with the building of character and dread: The story of a handful of souls stranded in their own version of Hell. What action there is is exciting, but the film is more concerned with the people on both sides of the conflict. It isn't surprising, then, to discover that the film is based on a stage play by William Mastrosimone ("Extremities"). A war film based on a stage play is pretty much going to have to involve character development, and the translation from stage to screen does it well.

Before writing this review, I went to Amazon to see how many had bothered to review this little known film. Not only were there over fifty sizable reviews posted, but they were unanimously positive. Many were from those in the military and were impressed by the authentic feel and realistic touches that the filmmakers made. I'm read a number of film reviews from movie sites that are run by members of the military, and I can tell you that they are very discerning when it comes to authenticity. That not only includes technical details about equipment and procedure, but also the actions and thoughts of the grunts in the middle of it all.

The actors acquit themselves well. George Dzundza is well cast in the typical gruff "Russian Bear" type role we've seen countless times, with the addition of a dark past. Stephen Baldwin happens to turn in the best performance I've seen from him outside "The Usual Suspects". And then there are the two leads, Steven Bauer and Jason Patric. Both are actors that people are slightly familiar with without really knowing anything about them. After promising starts in big hits during the 1980's (Bauer in "Scarface" and Patric in "The Lost Boys"), their careers never really took off. It's good to see a pair of honest actors really giving it their all to make a film like this work, and they deserve a great deal of credit for the success of the film.

One last aspect of the film that gets a lot of attention in reviews is the handling of accents. In this case, the Afghans speak Arabic with subtitles (Cuban-born Bauer learned his lines phonetically) and the Americans playing the Russians speak English. The decision not to have the American actors attempt accents was for the best, and it's a choice I wish director Kevin Reynolds had stuck with for his following film, "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves". Though all the main characters get by with no inflections, there is a Russian helicopter pilot they run across late in the film that looks and sounds as if he just got off his surfboard. Other than this one anomaly, viewers will be much more focused on what the characters say instead of how they say it.

This is a powerful and enrapturing film. The stunning location work, which was actually shot in parts of Israel, creates a mood that pervades throughout the whole film. If the surroundings they chose to shoot have any resemblance to what our men and women are currently inhabiting in Afghanistan, then they have my sympathies. As our protagonists soon learn, anyone not native to that land learn new meanings to the the word "Inhospitable".

Eight out of Ten

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