There was such a glut of Vietnam-set war films in the late '80s that "Vietnam movie" practically became its own genre, like slasher flicks and horny-teen romps. But because Vietnam movies had such a rigorous set of themes and plot devices, from the conflict between fresh-faced soldiers and battle-hardened superiors to the decadent indulgence in sex and drugs between campaigns, the criticism "seen one, seen them all" wasn't entirely unwarranted. After a while, the Vietnam movies cancelled each other out, at the box office and in the memory.
Somewhat lost in the shuffle was 1987's Hamburger Hill, an ideology-free two-fisted tale about one platoon's attempt to seize a strategic position near the Laotian border. Screenwriter-producer James Carabatsos and director John Irvin do follow the Vietnam-movie blueprint, right down to scenes where the jaded short-timers freeze out the FNGs ("fuckin' new guys"), but the bulk of Hamburger Hill is narrow in scope and pulpy in content—similar to a vintage Sam Fuller war story. Between its dreamy Philip Glass score, vivid location shooting, and strong early performances by future stars Dylan McDermott, Courtney Vance, Steven Weber, and Don Cheadle, Hamburger Hill stands out from the pack as one of the best of the Vietnam movies.
Naturally, it has its faults. In its attempts to offer a more sympathetic view of the military, Hamburger Hill comes off as overly defensive, making unnecessary villains out of smug war correspondents and the hippie chicks back home. And though the action is hyper-realistic, after a while it devolves into a blur of gory explosions and weeping soldiers cradling their dying comrades. Still, in the midst of all the mayhem, Carabatsos and Irvin insert simpler you-are-there scenes, like a brief shot of new arrivals filling out their paperwork, and several scenes where Vance bickers with white soldiers about institutional racism. On the whole, Hamburger Hill aims to show that no matter the war, the men who go to the front ultimately conform to a common model of macho bluster and forced camaraderie. And then they get their heads blown off.
Key features: Carabatsos and some of the lesser-known cast members reminisce proudly on a commentary track, while in a 15-minute featurette, Irvin and the bigger names (minus Cheadle) discuss the hardship involved with making a film so perilous that two crew members died.