TONIGHT – “OFF LIMITS” (1988 / dir. – Christopher Crowe)
Lately I’ve found myself defending films which weren’t necessarily critical (or even audience) darlings at the box office. Well, in all honesty not just “lately” – haha! But, hey, judging a film based on its box office (or even critical praise … or lack thereof) has always been pretty empty-headed to me. I mean, by that criteria we’d have to consider “Fantasia”, “Bringing Up Baby”, “Blade Runner”, “The Thing” and other films as “bad” because they were lambasted by critics at the time of their releases, and they all initially tanked at the box office. So, so much for that yardstick.
But I’m also of that generation which …well, I guess the best analogy would be that generation which grew up on vinyl LPs. Back in the days of vinyl and turntables (and I still have and use both!) you had an album with maybe 12 tracks. And of them maybe 4 you really dug, another three or four were “okay”, and another three or four you just didn’t like at all. Sometimes – if you were feeling particularly “into it” – you’d get up, cross the room, pick up the turntable needle and move it over the “don’t like” songs. But that was a time-consuming hassle, so most times you just let it ride and you dealt with it. But (important part here) you didn’t toss out the whole album because there were parts of it you didn’t think were as good as other parts. And that’s a truism / mindset which seems to be pretty much lost today. Lost when it comes to most things in general, and certainly when folks debate, dissect and review films in particular. Most comments you come across today on a forum or whatever usually fall under the “either / or” and “it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread, or it’s the worst thing ever” categories. And, hey, the opinions aren’t even usually articulated that well. There also seems to be this tendency to judge a film via a criteria which says “If it doesn’t hit a homerun”…Hell, and not even a homerun, but “If it doesn’t hit a grand-slam homerun with all the bases loaded, then it’s not all that great a film; it’s weak”.
It’s a mindset which seems to believe that every film needs to have a “The Sixth Sense” / “Planet of The Apes” kind of twist. Or it has to have a plot which pretzels this way and that, and psyches out the audience every 15 minutes or the reaction is “Is that all it was?” It’s sort of the cinema-viewers equivalent of those who need to constantly have reassuring sunshine blown up their asses. And if that’s not happening then “There’s a problem here”, “Are you okay?” and “Why aren’t you crushing it every day?” – that sort of thing. A film isn’t allowed to just “play itself out” and have subtext and (even on better days) sublayers of socio-political resonance, … which it may take a viewing or two, or at least the ride home from the theater, to digest and realize. Y’know, films made for grownups who like to take the time to mull over and savor what the movie and it’s makers were all about before having to rush to social media and give it an insta “Thumps Up” or “Thumbs Down” in order to prove you saw it before everyone else. Two films I always felt which were unfairly dumped into that “is that all it was?” category were “Alien Nation” and OFF LIMITS – both released in 1988 by 20th Century Fox.
Very much blown off by most critics of the day as “no big deal” and “just another cop movie against a new backdrop”, I always felt the strongest single aspect of both films was that they did take their “just another cop movie” vibe / format / tropism for granted. Both films’ strongest aspect because the point of neither film was to recreate the “cop movie” wheel, but to rather let it stand as it is and has always been in order to show just how inherently racist, sexist and more the genre (and national mindset) we all take for granted actually is and has always been. I love that kind of (let’s call it) “revelation by relocation” in film. I mean, look at the original “Planet of The Apes.”
One of the greatest “aces up the sleeve” of Franklin Schaffner’s classic 1968 sci-fier is in its casting of Charlton Heston – who by the that time, via films such as “Ben-Hur”, “The Greatest Show On Earth”, “Touch of Evil”, “El Cid”, “The Greatest Story Ever Told” and more, had become the upstanding “rock solid piece of middle America” hero everyone could count upon. Then in “Planet of The Apes” he becomes the looked down upon, doused by a fire hose minority who’s denied a fair trial, and who even by film’s end becomes a runaway slave in that film’s version of the Underground Railroad with Kim Hunter his Harriet Tubman of sorts. So, by a mere act of “relocation” (in this case relocating an actor and his persona into a new context) “Planet of The Apes” 60s era Civil Rights subtext gets a full tank of high-octane gasoline without having to preach (at least not too much) to the audience. It just lets its Civil Rights story subtext play out without having to underline it over and over. To those sharp enough to pick up on it, “Alien Nation” and OFF LIMITS very much do the same thing, only not with an actor and his / her persona, but with the genre itself being “relocated.”
By simply setting a “run of the mill cop story” – which “Alien Nation” was criticized as by many critics upon release – in a future America where the immigrants seeking to integrate into “The Great Cultural Melting Pot”, and who are facing all kinds of prejudice / xenophobia…well, the standard cop movie cliches which we’ve long cheered and laughed along with, and have always been thrilled by, suddenly are revealed to have been racist as f**k all along. We just didn’t really notice before because we’d become so used to it being the status quo norm. There’s a scene in “The French Connection” where Gene Hackman’s cop Popeye Doyle says to his partner Roy Schneider “Never trust a n**ger”. And Schneider years later in an interview said when he sat in a mostly black audience during an early screening of the film, the audience went wild – laughing and cheering and clapping – because for the first time they saw depicted on screen what they always felt were the dispositions of the cops they knew honestly and accurately depicted for the first time. And from that point on there was no going back to the depiction of the “squeaky clean supercops” of years prior. “Alien Nation” does a similar thing by simply making the immigrant police partner a member of a race from another world rather than from another nation. And it is through the eyes of that interstellar police partner, as he goes through the “standard cliched cop movie tropes”, that we get to see how racist those tropes have actually always been. OFF LIMITS does this too, but in Saigon at the height of the Vietnam war.
OFF LIMITS is essentially a more modern remake of Anatole Litvak’s 1967 World War II murder mystery “The Night of The Generals” – which starred Omar Sharif as an Abwehr intelligence officer investigating the death of a prostitute in occupied Warsaw; and his investigation leading to most likely suspects Peter O’Toole, Tom Courtney and Donald Pleasence – all of them high ranking German officers. And the tension in the film ratchets up when Sharif discovers he’s being “encouraged” to go along with a cover-up because the incident may lead to a larger political firestorm within the halls of power of the German army.
In OFF LIMITS Willem Dafoe and Gregory Hines are two Army CID (Criminal Investigative Division / Detachment) agents on duty in Saigon in 1968 who are assigned the case of a murdered Vietnamese prostitute in the section of the city off limits to U.S. military personnel, and whom witnesses say was killed by someone in an American military uniform. Though Hines and Dafoe clash with the local police (headed up by “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story” and “Noble House”’s Kay Tong Lim), their case is mostly routine until an enlisted soldier (the always awesome Keith David of John Carpenter’s “The Thing” and “They Live”) who was in a nearby room with his own prostitute that night, claims to have seen the killer whom he says was a high-ranking American officer. He’ll only talk if granted protection and a promise to be sent back home to the States. But before the deal can be finalized, he’s murdered, and the investigation then leads (as did Sharif’s in “Night of The Generals”) up the military chain of command and into a possible cover up with political ramifications.
A few days ago, on a film page someone mentioned OFF LIMITS (released in numerous territories outside the U.S. as “SAIGON”), and a long thread of comments (mostly from those who never saw the film, or who saw it long ago but didn’t really remember much of it) assumptively lumped it in with the numerous “Vietnam films” of the 80s – movies like “Platoon”, “Casualties of War”, “Full Metal Jacket”, “Hanoi Hilton”, etc. And I mentioned that it really wasn’t part and parcel of that line of films, but was more accurately a “police procedural mystery which takes place in Saigon during the Vietnam war”. And I think that kind of “misunderstanding” of what the film was really all about / what it’s intent actually was when it was initially released lead to many critics chalking it up as just another “Is that all it was?” police thriller. So, yeah, if you’re anticipating “Casualties of War”, and you instead get “The Seven Ups”, you’ll probably be disappointed. But if you take “The Seven Ups”, “The French Connection”, “The Naked City”, “The Laughing Policeman” or even Fritz Lang’s “M”, and you transplant it in Vietnam, then the big d*ck swingin’ cops who usually enter the room, roust the inhabitants, slam people up against the wall and get the job done by “takin’ names and kickin’ ass”, suddenly come to exemplify the dictionary definition of the “Ugly American”, western imperialism and xenophobia / outright racism on someone else’s soil. It suddenly makes the genre say and do that which it perhaps was never intended to say and do. OFF LIMITS does / makes comment on all of this, and it makes this comment without even opening its mouth to do so (if you will), without even having to point a finger at its subtext, and without having to hammer it home. Merely by placing American cops with American cop attitudes in a city at the center of a controversial war, the cop genre itself kind of does all of the necessary talking, and in so doing it kind of incriminates and indicts itself.
OFF LIMITS was directed by the underrated writer / producer / director Christopher Crowe – who during the 80s I always thought would become one of those breakthrough-to-the-mainstream filmmakers like Peter Hyams or Andrew Davis, but who eventually ended up not being a “household name” but more a well-respected craftsman known “in the biz”. The screenwriter of films like Michael Mann’s “Last of The Mohicans” and Philip Borsos’ “The Mean Season” (an underrated gem, by the way!), he directed other very efficient theatrical thrillers such as 1992’s “Whispers In The Dark”, and wrote and / or produced / headed up production on films like the horror anthology gem “Nightmares” (1983) and (probably my favorite by him) the acclaimed 1985 tv series reboot of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”
Crowe co-wrote OFF LIMITS with actor Jack Thibeau – whose face you’d certainly recognize from dozens of films like “The Hitcher”, “Action Jackson” and “48 Hours” and especially in Clint Eastwood faves such as “Escape From Alcatraz”, “Sudden Impact” (he’s one of the rapists) and “City Heat.” I think during the time in which OFF LIMITS was released – at the height of the “‘Ra Ra America!’ Ronald Regan era” – audiences (and even critics), while willing to accept films criticizing the war in Vietnam, maybe wasn’t necessarily willing to accept one which made a lot of the bad sh*t which went down over there analogous to what was presently happening on the inner-city streets of America. Michael Wadleigh’s “Wolfen” (1982 – and which also co-starred Gregory Hines) was another film which used a genre film trope (in its case the horror genre) to also make some none-too-flattering analogies to Regan era America at the time. And it too tanked at the box office. At any rate …
Violent, foul-mouthed, fast-moving and incredibly made AF (it deserved Oscar nominations for Dennis Washington’s production design, David Gribbles cinematography and James Newton Howard’s “borderline minimalist” score, … but it received recognition for none of them), OFF LIMITS also features damn good performances by Dafoe, Hines, Fred Ward, and Scott Glenn as an Army officer who’d make Robert Duvall’s Col. Kilgore in “Apocalypse Now” do a “WTF!!!???” double-take! Watching it now you’d swear it was made just last year as a commentary on the same abuses of power which led to the Black Lives Matter and “Defund The Police” movements. But, no, it was just far ahead of its time by reminding us that be it the past, present or future, bringing to the fore the subjects of American imperialism and institutionalized racism are topics which should never be “off limits”.
Yeah, I know. I went there! Couldn’t *not* use that one.