"Improvise. Observe. Adapt."
On the 2010 retrospective "The Eastwood Factor," the actor says his role as Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Highway in the 1986 movie "Heartbreak Ridge" was "the most-extreme parody of traditional masculinity" he ever played. I'm glad he's able to see it as parody, a comic imitation or satire, because his macho posturing is so overboard I'd hate to think he was doing it seriously.
The retrospective also tells us that after about 1980 Eastwood tried "to avoid genre clichés." He didn't want to do the same old things anymore, the tried-and-true indomitable cops and cowboys, but wanted to do more challenging, or at least more-unique, material. His Marine Corps gunnery sergeant is surely different for him, a combination of John Wayne's Sgt. Stryker in "Sands of Iwo Jima" and Burt Lancaster's Sgt. Warden in "From Here to Eternity," with a humorously exaggerated emphasis on the stubborn, hard-nosed, single-minded brawniness of both men. Interestingly, a year later R. Lee Ermey would practically repeat Eastwood's caricature, this time as the scary Sgt. Hartman in "Full Metal Jacket."
Still, is Tom Highway really all that different from so many of Eastwood's previous roles? Think of Harry Callahan as a Marine, and you get the idea. Except that Eastwood expected us to believe in and root for the dinosaur-out-his-era Dirty Harry. Tom Highway takes Callahan's stubborn adherence to duty a step further, making him more a subject of amusement than admiration. This is Eastwood taking his own iconic tough-guy image to its limits for the sake of an amusing motion picture. Fortunately, as producer, director, and star of the movie, Eastwood also knows when to pull back from the laughs and play it straight. So the film may be lighthearted, but it still packs its fair share of thrills.
Tom Highway is an enigma to everyone around him. He's a longtime veteran of the Corps, having fought in Korea and Vietnam, and a decorated hero, having won the Medal of Honor among a chestful of other decorations. But he has no more wars to fight, and outside the corps his life is a mess. He's a loner, a carouser, a rowdy drunk, and a divorced man still longing for his ex-wife (Marsha Mason). Plus, he's facing mandatory retirement and hasn't a clue what he would do without the Marines. But he knows he'll have to find out soon enough, and on his own he might not make it.
The story begins in 1983 by establishing the main character's credentials. Tom Highway is sitting in a jail cell regaling his fellow inmates with old war stories. He's in there for public drunkenness, disorderly conduct, and peeing on a police car. "Well, it seemed like the thing to do...sir." Then a mountainous moron in Highway's cell decides to teach the soldier-boy a lesson. Needless to say, Highway beats the crap out of him. Thus, our introduction to Sgt. Highway.
The rest of the story isn't much more that we haven't seen before. The Corps calls on Highway to shape up a ragtag platoon of misfits; he tries to get back together with his former wife; and he generally carries on as a macho lunkhead. Yet it's Eastwood's carefree way with the characters and events that carries the day. For instance, the men in his platoon think Highway is certifiable, but they learn to respect him. Furthermore, he is attempting to improve himself by learning to become more sensitive and improve his understanding of the opposite sex by reading women's magazines like "Cosmopolitan." Good luck with that, but at least he's trying. And it's funny seeing the reactions of other people watching him with the magazines and his fumbling with words like "Uh, somebody left 'em here."
As with all of Eastwood's films, there's a good supporting cast. Marsha Mason's Aggie Highway is every bit the match for her former husband. Arlen Dean Snyder plays Highway's best friend, Sgt. Major Choozoo. Everett McGill is Highway's commanding officer, the Annapolis man and total pinhead Major Powers. Moses Gunn is the kiss-up Sgt. Webster. Eileen Heckart is old friend Little Mary Jackson. Bo Svenson is the owner of a bar and rival for Aggie's hand, Roy Jennings. And Mario Van Peebles is the rocker-rapper, nonstop talker, con-man supreme, Corp. "Stitch" Jones, a reluctant member of Highway's new reconnaissance platoon.
As always, too, in an Eastwood film, the music is fun and the pace is brisk. You may not always like Eastwood's films, but you seldom get downright bored by them.
Anyway, Highway finally gets his war when the U.S. decides to invade the little island of Grenada, and they call up Highway's platoon to fight. The battle occupies the last quarter or so of the picture, and by this time Highway's men will follow him anywhere. These final sequences are among the most serious in the movie, and they bring it to a satisfying close.
"I'm here to tell you that life as you know it has ended."
The picture quality on high-definition Blu-ray comes up about as well as one might expect and as about as well as most other movies a quarter of a century old. Warner engineers use a dual-layer BD50 and VC-1 codec to reproduce the film in its original aspect ratio, 1.85:1. The image looks slightly rough most of the time, dusky in appearance, with a touch of natural print grain and a small amount of glossiness. Faces sometimes take on a faintly orangish tinge, but, otherwise, colors are deep, set off by solid black levels. Definition also looks good, with close-ups especially well detailed.
For the first three-quarters of the film, you'd hardly know that WB transferred the soundtrack via lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. There's a good front-channel stereo spread, very little rear-channel activity beyond some musical bloom, and an overall impression of fairly hard-edged sonics. Then we get to the battle scenes in the final quarter of the film, and all that changes. The surround channels come to life with a fury, providing the noises of helicopters, explosions, and ricochetting bullets, along with deep, tight bass and wide dynamics. In other words, wait for it.
This is another of those catalogue releases on Blu-ray that gets nothing much besides the movie. There is a generous thirty-eight scene selections, which is nice; a theatrical trailer; English, French, Castellan, German, and Italian spoken languages; French, Spanish, German, Italian, Danish, Norwegian, and other subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. But nothing else.
Eastwood could have taken a more traditional, straightforward approach to this material and made just another gung-ho war movie. Instead, he followed a lighter, less-serious course and came up with a jaunty, high-spirited product in "Heartbreak Ridge," a film that never takes itself too seriously yet rewards in its own right. There is nothing original here, only an amiable attitude that's hard to knock.
Oh, and what's Heartbreak Ridge? A very small part of a long-ago war.