At Fort Polk, Louisiana, in 1971, soldiers undergo advanced infantry training at a facility — they call it Tigerland — designed to look, feel, smell and scare like Vietnam. That’s the setting for a new movie from director Joel Schumacher that, unlike the holy trinity of Oscar-type Nam movies — Platoon, Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter — steers clear of Southeast Asia. Like the first half of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, Tigerland focuses on training men to kill right in their own back yard.
Schumacher, the director of two critically reviled Batman epics – he’s not fond of them, either — could have competed with the big boys in the usual ways: fat budget, major stars, lofty literary pedigree. Instead, he shot Tigerland on a Florida army base for chump change ($10 million), working with a script by the untried Ross Klavan and Michael McGruther, and a cast of unknowns. Despite melodramatic lapses — the gripping action recalls Walter Hill’s 1981 Southern Comfort — this is Schumacher’s most ambitious film since Falling Down in 1993, and it plays to his strengths with young actors (The Lost Boys, St. Elmo’s Fire, Flatliners).
Colin Farrell excels in the role of Bozz, the cynical soldier who revels in pissing off the brass. Bozz finds loopholes in Army rules to get Cantwell (Tom Guiry) discharged. He also mouths off to any “backed-up sperm brain” — trainee or officer — who takes the Army seriously. Paxton (Matthew Davis), a budding writer who chases whores with Bozz on R&R, worries that his desertion-minded friend will be court-martialed, but the officers think there’s a leader in Bozz. They just need to wait him out. One gung-ho trainee, Wilson (Shea Whigham), freaks when he sees Bozz rise by flouting authority. In the simulated combat of Tigerland, it’s inevitable that someone will use live ammo. Even when the script overtaxes the allegory about how Vietnam divided a nation at home, Schumacher and the actors prevail by fixing their sights on what happens to men on that last stop before the game of war becomes a grim reality.