Beefed up and buzz-cut to play a 1963 marine partying hard in San Francisco before getting shipped overseas, River Phoenix busts out of his usual sensitive mode (Running on Empty, Stand by Me) to deliver a performance of blunt intensity. In the early scenes of Dogfight, it looks as if he’d found a movie to match. Written by Bob Comfort, a former marine, and directed by Nancy Savoca, who debuted with the gritty True Love in 1989, Dogfight has a provocative premise. The 4 B’s — Birdlace (Phoenix), Berzin (Richard Panebianco), Benjamin (Mitchell Whitfield) and Buele (Anthony Clark) — join up with their foulmouthed, beer-swilling, casually cruel buddies to organize a dogfight. It’s a contest in which each soldier bets fifty dollars that he can show up at a party with the butt-ugliest girl.
Birdlace latches on to Rose (Lili Taylor), a gawky waitress whom he finds practicing guitar at a cafe owned by her mother (Holly Near). Among the other contestants are a towering Indian woman, Ruth Two Bears (Sue Morales), and the toothless Marcy (E.G. Daily), a hooker Berzin has hired to charm the judges by showing up without her false teeth. Accidentally, Rose finds out that she and the other women are being used. Overcoming her shyness, she lashes out at Birdlace for entrapping her in this sadistic game.
Comfort is trying to show the parallels between these disdained women and the marines, who are ridiculed by many civilians as subhuman warmongers. Feeling rejected, they want to do some rejecting, too. But Comfort fails to cut deep enough to draw blood. Taylor is a fine actress (Mystic Pizza, Say Anything), but even teased hair, bad makeup and a little extra weight (she gained twelve pounds) do not make her dogfight material. Comfort conceived Rose as a fat woman. Cast accordingly, the character might have been more powerful and moving.
Feeling guilty, Birdlace follows Rose home and requests a real date. They go to a fancy restaurant and then to a coffeehouse where Rose sings “What Have They Done to the Rain” to her soldier boy’s appreciative audience of one. Later, in Rose’s bedroom, they make love.
For contrast, we watch the other B’s getting tattooed and then buying blow jobs from a hooker in a movie theater. She replaces her gum between each man. Nice touch. It’s the kind of thing you expect from Savoca, who raised True Love above the hackneyed by keeping her Bronx lovers in keen touch with reality. But Savoca didn’t write the script this time. On someone else’s turf, she’s nowhere near as comfortable.
The script sends Birdlace off to Vietnam, where his eyes are opened by combat and grievous personal loss. Returning to San Francisco in 1967, the summer of love, he can reach out to Rose as a wiser man. These scenes are sweet, wonderfully acted and totally bogus. Dogfight doesn’t sum up an era; it merely romanticizes it. What could have been an incisive movie about alienation deteriorates into a conventional romance.