Taps review by Mike Long

Throughout the history of film, the general styles of movies have changed a great deal. With each generation, there is a newly accepted way for movies to look and sound. So, if one is viewing a movie from 25 years ago, how can one decide if it is actually slow paced or not? Is the movie truly slow or does it just seem that way when compared to the films of today? The film in question today is Taps, which has been re-released in a new 25th anniversary special edition DVD.

Taps takes place at the Bunker Hill Military Academy. As the film opens, the school year is ending and the Academy director, General Bache (George C. Scott) promotes Brian Moreland (Timothy Hutton) to the rank of Cadet Major -- the highest military rank in the school save for the General. Moreland and his friends, Alex Dwyer (Sean Penn) and David Shawn (Tom Cruise), are very excited about the upcoming school year, where they will be seniors. However, their celebration comes to an end at the commencement ceremony, where General Bache announces that the school will be closed in one year, when it will be torn down so that condominiums can be built. During the school's formal dance, a scuffle between the cadets and some local kids ensues and one of the locals is killed. This action prompts the powers that be to order Bunker Hill closed immediately.

However, Moreland doesn't agree with that decision and feels that the students should have a say in the school's future. He organizes a siege, and the cadets take the school over by force. Moreland demands a meeting with the board of trustees. The National Guard, led by Colonel Kerby (Ronny Cox), arrives, but Moreland refuses to relinquish control of the Academy. As the siege presses on, the stress on the young men increases and it becomes clear that one side will crack.

I hadn't seen Taps in over 20 years, but I remembered liking the movie. Upon viewing the film again, I found a movie which runs very hot and cold. The central premise of the film is very intriguing and hasn't lost any of its power. As the story unfolds, we see a group of young men, some of whom are truly children, who make a serious of very serious decisions, acting in what they feel is their best interest. However, during the course of the siege, the characters begin to mirror those in "The Lord of the Flies" to an extent, with Moreland being Ralph, Shawn being Jack, and Dwyer being Simon (sort of). The stress of the situation begins to take its toll on the cadets, with some of them deserting. The most obvious evidence of this stress comes through the relationships between Moreland, Shawn, and Dwyer -- as their view of the procedure begins to diverge, dissention amongst the ranks is inevitable.

Watching Taps today is quite entertaining simply due to the cast. Timothy Hutton’s role in the film is his first following his Oscar win for Ordinary People. This was Tom Cruise’s second film role and Sean Penn’s first (and man does he look young here). Hutton and Penn are very good in their roles. Hutton brings a quiet strength to the role of Moreland, while Penn is excellent as the cadet who begins to question the proceedings. As much as I hate to admit this, Cruise is actually good as Shawn. Maybe this is because he’s actually playing a character (the semi-psycho cadet) instead of just trying to be the cool pretty-boy. It was also interesting to see Evan Handler and Giancarlo Esposito in early roles.

Despite these strengths, Taps has some major flaws. As noted above, I found the film to be very slowly paced. This 126 minute movie contains many scenes which simply go on too long. The commencement parade seems to go on forever. When the National Guard arrives, we have to watch all of their trucks drive by. (I understand that the point of this scene was to illustrate the might of the Guard, but someone could have simply said, “We brought 20 trucks.”) The actual plot of the film doesn’t show up for some 40 minutes.

The length of the film and the overall pointlessness of some scenes would be so annoying if the rest of the time was spent on something crucial. Yet, during this two-hour film, we learn very little about the characters. We get to know the bare minimum about the cadets and nothing about those outside of the school. Thus, it becomes very difficult to discern why the boys take over the school. Is it simply for honor? Are they truly trying to save the beloved institution? Or are they all just crazy soldiers?

I’m gotten quite used to being disappointed by films that I liked in adolescence, so I wasn’t all that surprised by my reaction to Taps. The movie presents a great story (although the shift from normal life to the siege is a bit disconcerting and the movie really spirals into fictionland at that point) and some terrific acting. But, the sloppy pacing and lack of characterization hurt the film. The movie is still worth seeing, if nothing else to check out two great actors and Tom Cruise as their careers were beginning.

Taps marches onto DVD courtesy of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. The movie has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs.. Given the film’s age, the transfer looks good. The image is sharp and surprisingly clear, showing little grain. However, there are some notable defects from the source material, mostly black and white dots. The clarity of the image gives the picture a great deal of depth and the colors look great. There was some video noise at times, but otherwise the transfer looks good. The DVD carries a Dolby 4.0 Surround audio track, which, according to the DVD box, means that the sound comes from the center and front channels and one surround speaker. OK... In any case, the dialogue is clear and there is no hissing on the track. Stereo effects were noticeable and well-placed. The surround effects were quite faint and didn’t add to the experience.

The DVD contains a nice mix of extras. “Sounding the Call to Arms: Mobilizing the Taps Generation” (30 minutes) is a making of featurette offering comments from Timothy Hutton, director Harold Becker, producer Stanley Jaffe, Ronny Cox, director of photography Owen Roizman, and “Time Magazine” film critic Richard Schickel. This segment focuses on the cast (specifically Hutton, Penn, and Cruise), the location, the training, and the director. All of those involved share anecdotes about the production and Schickel gives his opinion on the film. Becker also provides an AUDIO COMMENTARY. This talk is somewhat bland as there are many silent gaps and Becker repeats the stories which he told in the featurette. He does do a good job of remembering details of the shoot and points out certain important moments in the film. In “The Bugler’s Cry: The Origins of Playing ‘Taps’” (7 minutes) historian Jari Villanueva discusses the history of the song. The extras are rounded out by four TRAILERS and 2 TV SPOTS.

6 out of 10 Jackasses

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