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Apocalypse Now Redux   B+

Miramax Films

Year Released: 2001 (Original Version: 1979)
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Writers: John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola
Cast: Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Larry Fishburne, Dennis Hopper, G.D. Spradlin, Aurore Clement, Harrison Ford.

Review by Rob Vaux

There's an apocryphal story about Matisse, the French painter who was supposedly thrown out of the Louvre after smuggling paint and brushes inside. When asked why he would do such a thing, he replied, "They're not finished yet." His works are hanging in the greatest museum in the world, and he wanted to go in and fix them.

I thought about that story during my viewing of Apocalypse Now Redux. Here you have arguably the greatest movie of the last 25 years, and what does director Francis Coppola want to do? Muck with it. The result is a longer, slower, more bloated version of his incendiary masterpiece which retains much of its power but suffers from some seriously unnecessary revisions.

The original 1979 release ran some two and a half hours, and encapsulated what many consider a definitive statement on the horrors of war. Coppola filtered the conflict in Vietnam through Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the story of a white man who goes mad with power in the depths of the African jungle. His retake centered on Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), a military assassin sent into the depths of Vietnam to kill a renegade colonel named Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Willard makes an episodic journey in a navy patrol boat, up a river engulfed with horror, bloodshed, and a U.S military thrashing about like a headless animal. By the time he reaches the compound where Kurtz has set himself up as a pagan god, he understands not only the man's insanity but also the savage conditions that made such a state necessary.

Coppola supposedly came close to madness himself in the filming of his epic, and the results took the breath away. The best thing about Apocalypse Now Redux is not only how much of that original vision survives, but how much more stunning it appears on the big screen. For those of you who, like me, had never seen the film in a movie theater, you're in for a treat. The sounds and images come through with lush, relentless power, enveloping you in a merciless grip. Scenes like the famous "Ride of the Valkyries" attack or Kurtz's chilling final monologues only reach their full potential when they dominate your field of vision. With this film Coppola didn't simply capture the essence of Vietnam, he came close to some fundamental understanding of war as a state of mind.

The problems with this new version come with Coppola's efforts to gild the lily. Apparently (and astonishingly) unsatisfied by the original cut, he and editor Walter Murch reshaped several scenes, adjusted certain sequences, and added some 45 minutes of new footage. Their efforts don't diminish the film's strength, but neither do they add anything pertinent. The best elements are the most subtle: a few re-cut sequences, a slight shifting of events, and some great new footage involving Robert Duvall's deranged Colonel Kilgore. But the two longest passages do little except weigh down the proceedings and disrupt the film's near-perfect flow. The first scene, involving the boat crew's rendezvous with a trio of Playboy playmates, simply doesn't work. It fumbles around awkwardly with some faux surrealism, but can't manage anything more than a few bad bimbo jokes. The second scene at least strives for something meaningful, but it can't achieve much either. It concerns an encounter with a group of French colonists, still clinging to their ancestral plantation against all odds. Though brilliantly shot, its overall tone jars badly with the remainder of the film, and its efforts to place the action in some kind of historical context never really resonate. Both scenes feel like excess baggage, marring the flow of the film with their presence. Other scenes, already present, make the same points much more sublimely.

A lot of critics have complained that filmmaking like this isn't possible anymore, which is both true and a little unfair. Only a handful of movies in history can approach Apocalypse Now, and this flawed, expanded version still provides a massive punch. Comparisons to other movies only trivialize it. As frustrating as it is, Apocalypse Now Redux still provides an opportunity to view a true work of art as it was meant to be seen. Forty minutes of excess flab is a small price to pay, though a simple restoration and reissue would have served much better. It will be interesting to see which version -- the old or the new -- will survive the test of time, and what film students will be looking at in 20 years when Apocalypse Now appears on their syllabus. Long or short, Coppola's magnum opus remains one of the singular reasons filmmaking was invented.

Just keep the man away from the paintbrushes.

Review published 08.13.2001.

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