Seen in theaters, Brian De Palma's Vietnam film had a feverish yet classical wide-screen grandeur. Casualties of War was like a visual cross between Apocalypse Now and Rebel Without a Cause, with hypnotically odd-angled, close-up images that seared themselves into your brain.
On video, that looming rectangle is gone. And that's too bad, since the only thing Casualties of War really had going for it was its nightmare-trance imagery. As drama, the movie is sustained yet hopeless it coasts along on the kind of schoolbook-simple, this-is-good-and-this-is-bad pieties Vietnam made obsolete.
Michael J. Fox is Ericksson, the innocent young private who wants nothing more than to be a good, honorable soldier. Sean Penn is Meserve, the tough-guy sergeant who leads his platoon in an atrocity the kidnapping, gang rape, and murder of a Vietnamese teenager and goes head-to-head with Ericksson when the private refuses to participate in the crime and attempts to report it. Thuy Thy Le (in the film's one convincing performance) is the tragic victim. The movie is based on a true story, yet De Palma stages it with a kind of abstract tidiness. He turns the rape and its aftermath into a transparent, heavy-handed metaphor for America's Sin and Guilt in Vietnam.
Everything about the two principal performances feels Hollywood phony. Fox, a good actor, is woefully miscast here. He's such a smooth, unruffled, video-age performer that he never seems sullied by the war there's no conflict or messiness to Ericksson's guilt. And Penn uses the movie as an excuse to play Method-acting jerk. His performance is just a hambone derivative of Brando, Newman, and (especially) De Niro in Mean Streets. By the end, he seems little more than a gifted narcissist who thinks that talking like a Brooklyn yob and doing variations on the f-word constitute great acting. C