Tribute #2: Taps (1981)


A Film Review By Stefan Vlahov

Taps is a starting point for a lot of Hollywood talent that is still working today. Mostly, the film has been labeled as the beginning of the careers of superstars like Tom Cruise and Sean Penn. The film really is a vehicle for George C. Scott though as the 80’s were definitely his prime years. But Taps not only pioneered careers, it also jump-started a whole genre, though I am reluctant to call ‘struggle to retain honor ‘ a genre by itself. Yet, it is not a very good film. Certainly it is watchable – it does not try to be more than just a movie, and therefore is filled with over-the-top scenarios and unrealistic actions by the characters involved. Because of that, it may be viewed as an inspiration for films like Hart’s War and Rules of Engagement – good films that were unfairly criticized for containing unlikely developments. While I have grown to embrace realism in cinema, I still believe that effectiveness is more important. Still, some of the scenes and events in Taps are simply too ridiculous and silly, and therefore the rest of the film – a realistic depiction of life in a military academy – loses most of its credibility.

Which is not surprising considering this is a film by the now infamous Harold Becker. Becker’s films are so one-note that looking over his filmography is as depressing as recounting imagery from the last Eli Roth movie I saw. On the aforementioned filmography you can find such ‘gems’ like Vision Quest and more recently Domestic Disturbance (the final nail in the coffin for Michael Douglas’s acting career?) – films that play like they were made to TV, and watch like they were made to be some type of non-prescription sedatives. Some have argued that Taps is Becker’s best film, and if that is in fact true, he will go down in history as one of the most obscure and underachieving filmmakers of his time. Eli Roth dodged that bullet by ballyhooing his own films and streaking at movie premieres – maybe Becker should take notes.

Taps tells the story of the Bunker Hill Military Academy – an old institution that will be torn down and replaced with condos. There is just one problem – the cadets. They decide that the Academy is too special and contains too much history to be simply demolished in order to make way for simple housing. The cadets’ role model is General Harlan Bache (George C. Scott) – a commander whose influence is being undermined by a tragic event that takes place in the beginning of the film, which he unreluctantly takes full responsibility for. The leader of the cadets is Major Brian Moreland (Timothy Hutton), who devises a plan to bar all construction crews and refuse entry to anyone who is not part of the Academy.

The rest of the film is full of back-stabs, twists, and far-fetched happenings that lead to an ending that is as ridiculous as it is gloomy. The plot unravels in a fluctuating pattern of emotional moments and over-the-top speeches about honor and tradition, while exhibiting more convenient coincidences than a screenplay written by Steven Soderbergh. Which sounds worse when you know it has three writers credited for it. Yet the film’s message comes through successfully nonetheless. These characters’ actions are ones of irresponsibility and recklessness, yet they are fighting for more than just some building, they are fighting for a common cause – something that is important for a future soldier battalion.

What I will pick on is the normal stuff that I usually pick on in 80’s films – bad editing and cinematography, overacting, and of course episodic plot development. The film never seems to gain the correct flow that a drama needs in order to immerse us. Instead the audience is treated to unsubtle changes in emotion that are often not explained thoroughly. One wishes cinematographer Owen Roizman, who had previously done an amazing job on The Exorcist, would have taken the time to focus more on the surroundings, rather than the actors. I know Tom Cruise taking a shower will look good on film, but you don’t have to spend what seems like 15 minutes on it. The editing is also not up to par, as it contributes a lot to the scatter-shot plot progression that was previously discussed. A positive for the film is the excellent score by Maurice Jarre a legendary film composer who inserts the cliche war themes and intermixes them with some unique note combinations that add color to the proceedings.

The actors do a good job for the most part. George C. Scott is good, but he is George C. Scott. Timothy Hutton is hit-and-miss and one wishes he was more charismatic, since he never sells his leader role. As the bad guy, Tom Cruise does a great job. He is absolutely evil from the first frame to last, and even when explanations for his behavior are offered, he is just too immoral for anyone to care. And then there is Sean Penn whose emotional role is probably the best-acted part of the film (yes, even better than Cruise), and we find ourselves caring about him the most.

Overall, I find it difficult to give this film a full thumbs up. It is watchable and can be inspirational at times, but I frequently felt that Harold Becker and crew took the easy way out in fleshing out the story by staging cheap, over-the-top scenarios. If they took more time to develop more multi-dimensional characters, Taps would have been something special. But I think that is too much to ask from a director whose body of work indicates that he doesn’t have a creative bone in his body.

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