Monday, April 11, 2016

Retro Review: THE FOURTH WAR (1990)

(US - 1990)

An independently-made pickup for a post-Menahem Golan Cannon, John Frankenheimer's THE FOURTH WAR was a timely winding-down-of-the-Cold War thriller that failed to find an audience in the spring of 1990, bombing in 15th place its opening weekend as the much more high-profile HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER was still playing to packed houses.  Though his days as an A-lister were done, Roy Scheider's steely star power and gravitas remained as strong as ever in an intense performance as Col. Jack Knowles, a career Army man and legendary Vietnam War hero with a history of bad behavior and losing his temper. He's been stationed at faraway bases like Manila and Guam and granted the respect he's earned from his service but essentially kept on a tight leash with easy assignments designed to keep him out of trouble. His buddy Gen. Hackworth (Harry Dean Stanton) gives him another shot in the limelight with a command post at an Army base at the West German/Czechoslovakia border. After witnessing Soviet officers kill a potential defector as he was running to cross into West Germany, Knowles starts a pissing contest with Soviet base commander Valachev (Jurgen Prochnow) that starts with snowballs, escalates to rocket launchers, and eventually, an international incident that takes them to the brink of WWIII.

Scheider and Prochnow are excellent as battle-hardened warriors--one shattered by Vietnam, the other by Afghanistan--who don't know what to do with themselves in peacetime. They served their country with honor, but war is all they know and when they have no war to fight, they're happy to create their own. Both actors do a terrific job of conveying the rage they can't articulate while the same time giving off subtle indications--a look, a half-hearted smile--indicating that underneath all the fighting, there's a grudging respect for what the other guy's been through and an acknowledgment that they speak the same language. Frankenheimer (THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, THE TRAIN) was a pro wise enough to spare us a hackneyed "We're a lot alike, you and I" discussion between Knowles and Valachev, and while it gets silly and implausible at times, Scheider and Prochnow keep it grounded and compelling, and there's fine support from Tim Reid as Knowles' by-the-book second-in-command. A solid little gem from Frankenheimer's lost years prior to his ANDERSONVILLE and RONIN resurgence in the late '90s, THE FOURTH WAR followed 52 PICK-UP (also with Scheider) and the Don Johnson actioner DEAD-BANG, all three Frankenheimer joints deserving better receptions than moviegoers gave them. He stumbled badly with his next project, 1991's dismal YEAR OF THE GUN, an ill-advised Andrew McCarthy/Sharon Stone thriller set in Italy during the Red Brigades domestic terror attacks and the kidnapping of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro, which was an even bigger box-office bomb than THE FOURTH WAR and one of the great director's worst films. (R, 91 mins)

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