NEW YORK — MOVIES have explored the Vietnam war from a number of angles. To name a few: ``Apocalypse Now'' and ``Full Metal Jacket'' showed the literal insanity of war, while ``Coming Home'' studied the problems of veterans and ``Platoon'' looked at the brutal conflicts within an army unit. ``Casualties of War,'' the new movie by Brian DePalma, uses Vietnam as a background for its story, but it's less interested in the war itself than in certain fundamental questions of morality and responsibility. These could be examined in other settings, but take on tremendous power when magnified by the horror of wartime, which DePalma portrays in all its terrifying ferocity.
Based on an actual Vietnam incident that was reported in 1969 by a New Yorker magazine article, the story centers on a five-man patrol unit. Early in the film, its newest member (played by Michael J. Fox) gets trapped in a Viet Cong tunnel, and barely escapes death when his sergeant (Sean Penn) pulls him free. Shortly later, the squad's amiable radio man is killed, just weeks before he's due to leave for home.
This has a morbid effect on the sergeant, who begins to lose whatever humanity the war had still left in him. At the start of another long march through the countryside, he masterminds a criminal act - kidnaping, raping, and eventually killing a Vietnamese woman. Only the newcomer to the squad refuses to join this awful crime, and, when it's over, he has to face his conscience. Should he keep quiet about it, as everyone wants him to? Or should he turn in his former mates, including the one who saved his life, and make sure they're punished?
This is the moral question at the heart of ``Casualties of War,'' and it's hardly new or startling. To make it as pungent as possible, Mr. DePalma rubs our faces in the awfulness of the circumstances, especially in the long sequence involving the Vietnamese captive. DePalma is the right person for this job, since he's famous for horror yarns like ``Sisters'' and ``The Fury'' and suspense pictures like ``Scarface'' and ``The Untouchables,'' among others. He's also famous for pouring on violence and gore in his movies, a practice that raises moral questions quite beyond those in the story of his current this film.
In his own defense, DePalma has long insisted that he's a serious visual stylist who doesn't particularly like violence or even suspense, but turns to harrowing subjects because they offer the best opportunities for cinematic inventiveness. Whatever the merits of this argument, it must be noted that violence takes on a unique significance in war movies - where attempts to softpedal it might actually be unethical, since they could foster unrealistic notions of what war is really like.
In making ``Casualties of War,'' DePalma and screenwriter David Rabe seem to have been genuinely concerned not only with ``visual style,'' but also with the moral issues their characters face. The war itself is so vast and upsetting, however, that the filmmakers must be faulted for using it not as a social microcosm or philosophical crucible, but simply as a backdrop for melodramic events.
The film's most effective scenes are invariably the most horrifying ones - the abduction of the helpless woman, the rape and captivity she goes through, and her bloody murder. DePalma clearly sympathizes with this woman and hates the evil that she suffers. Yet he depicts that evil very graphically, and he allows the victim to show no real personality of her own. That's a serious limitation of the movie, and it's likely to rouse particular ire among women who've accused DePalma of an antifemale streak in past movies like ``Dressed To Kill'' and ``Body Double.''
Considered in terms of visual style, ``Casualties of War'' is steeped in the best tradition of classical Hollywood filmmaking. DePalma wields the camera efficiently and sometimes eloquently, and he knows how to inject a sequence with extra urgency by wholly cinematic means, as when at carefully chosen moments he wrenches his camera through the air instead of simply cutting from shot to shot. His tactics seem calculated and cold at times, as when he resorts to mathematically precise montage during the climactic murder scene. Yet the pathos of many key episodes is undeniable, and testifies to DePalma's growing maturity.
In the cast, Sean Penn gives a surprisingly strong and nuanced performance as the bad sergeant, and Michael J. Fox is likable as the hero, although his acting doesn't have much force behind it and weakens parts of the story - including the end, which is droopy and sentimental anyway. Other noteworthy performances come from Erik King as the radio man, Sam Robards as an Army chaplain, and especially Thuy Thu Le as the Vietnamese woman.
``Casualties of War'' is a flawed movie, and at times a terribly violent one. But it's also a powerful experience. And in a summer dominated by Ghostbusters and Batmen, it's good to have a film that gives us something to think about - even something as troubling as the horrors of Vietnam.