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Nick Nolte is dead-solid perfect here as Vietnam-vet Marine Ray Hicks, the ultimate 70's zen anti-hero. It's shocking to see him so young and muscular after the sheer variety of roles and physical embodiments he has taken on since. Here he's tough, flawed, and jaded, a once-idealistic cynic who has gotten himself into a bad situation but whose instinct for survival takes over. One of his first lines in the film is, "Self defense is an art I cultivate.", and he doesn't let down. It's a Steve McQueen-cool kind of role, and Nolte's wonderfully cinematic throughout; whether it's smoking a cigarette, drinking a beer, cleaning a weapon, kicking bad-guy butt with some quick martial arts moves, or putting a supportive arm around Tuesday Weld.
The story comes from Robert Stone's National Book Award winning "Dog Soldiers" which is a better if less marketable title. The title refers to those mercenary soldiers who would hire on and die for someone else's cause as surely as if it was their own. Much of the dialogue comes verbatim from Stone's book, and it's rare that the translation is so perfectly realized as it is by director Karel Reisz and his actors. The characters seem to be saying these words for the first time in the situation they're in, and what's more, much of the dialogue is endlessly quotable. Nolte in particular builds a tough-guy philosophy throughout snarling lines like, "I'm tired of taking s**t from inferior people."
He's perfectly paired on the road from Oakland to New Mexico with Weld, in one of her best performances as Michael Moriarty's pill-popping wife. Also well-cast are Anthony Zerbe, Richard Masur, and Ray Sharkey, who add plenty of menace and dark humor as a trio of shady feds after the heroin Nolte has ill-advisedly brought back from Vietnam for one-time pal Moriarty. Also standing out is Charles Haid as a small-time Hollywood hustler Nolte tries to have move the heroin. Look fast for Wings Hauser in the opening scenes as a Marine jeep driver. The film's tone may be too violent and downbeat for some tastes, but it captures the feeling of cynicism and disillusion stateside during the Vietnam War in an appropriately harrowing manner.
The climactic shootout is ingeniously staged at night on a mountain commune with strobes flashing and Hank Snow/CCR music blaring. The final shots of the film are striking and memorable, particularly the stark image of a battered and worn but still not beaten Nolte marching along an endless set of railroad tracks in the New Mexico desert. It's only a shame Nolte didn't attempt a few more roles in this action vein while he was still young.
The film is available on DVD, though there are no extras. It would have been nice to have interviews, commentary, and deleted scenes (particularly the pivotal Nolte/Weld love scene, which was reportedly filmed but wound up being only implied in the final cut).
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