MOVIE REVIEW OF ”DANGER CLOSE”

During the futile Vietnam War, many other nations fought alongside Uncle Sam.  The 2019 movie “Danger Close” (*** OUT OF ****) depicts the contribution that Australia made to the disastrous effort.  “Kill Me Three Times” director Kriv Stenders and “Pirates of the Caribbean” writer Stuart Beattle, with James Nicholas and Karel Segers, pay tribute to the heroic sacrifices of Australian soldiers.

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Statistically, between 1962 and 1973, some 60-thousand Aussies participated in the war, and 521 died, with over 3000 casualties involving either wounds or illnesses. Watching this harrowing homage to the troops from the Land Down Under reminded me of classic Vietnam war movies about Americans, such as “Apocalypse Now” (1979), “Platoon” (1986), and “Hamburger Hill” (1987), with their full measure of the horrors of combat.

Actors Travis Fimmel, Luke Bracey, and Richard Roxburgh head a stalwart cast in this exciting, R-rated, 118-minute baptism by fire on the battlefield.  Despite the familiar sense of déjà vu, you may feel while watching it, this riveting blood & guts actioneer will keep you on the edge of your seat as everything that can go wrong for the Australians does, in fact, go wrong.

The title “Danger Close” refers to the horrific predicament that troops experience when they have to call an artillery barrage down on their own position because the enemy has overrun them, and no alternatives exist.  The film recreates the little-known Battle of Long Tan, on August 18, 1966, at a rubber plantation near Long Tân, in Phước Tuy Province, South Vietnam.

While only 18 Australian soldiers died during the heavy fighting against 2000 Viet Cong guerillas, Vietnam War historians argue the battle proved beyond a shadow of a doubt the fighting mettle of the Australians.  Furthermore, in 1987, Prime Minister Bob Hawk declared August 18th as Vietnam Veterans’ Day in Australia.  As the film reveals during its closing credits, the Viet Cong and the Australians both claimed victory.

As the film unfolds, Major Harry Smith (Travis Fimmel of “Warcraft”) is itching to go where the fighting is. He reports to his mustached superior, Brigadier General David Jackson (Richard Roxburgh of “Hacksaw Ridge”), that he is sick of ‘breast-feeding’ green troops.  Predictably, Jackson refuses his request and Smith storms back to his tent in a rage.  He commands Delta Company, three platoons consisting about 108 soldiers.

Later, he learns during a random Viet Cong mortar attack one of his men, Private Paul Large (Daniel Webber of “The Punisher” tv series) brazenly discharged rounds at a phantom enemy.  Smith chews out Large.  He explains that soldiers in combat must trust each other implicitly or their chances of survival are slim.  The battle-hardened Smith has acquired an austere reputation of drilling his troops relentlessly so they will be adequately prepared for any contingency.

One of his many orders requires them to tape their dog-tags together, so they won’t rattle in the field and alert the enemy of their imminent approach.  This reminded me of the Clint Eastwood war movie “Heartbreak Ridge” (1986) when he warned his recruits to keep their canteens filled so the sound of water sloshing in them won’t betray their position.

Meanwhile, during the mortar attack, Sergeant Bob Buick (Luke Bracey of the “Point Break” remake) breaks up a poker game among four shave-tail lieutenants who refuse to evacuate to a foxhole.  Most of Smith’s troops, other than Sergeant Buick are teenage conscripts, while he is a thirtysomething veteran of other wars.

Director Kriv Stenders and his three writers focus primarily on the bravery and valor of the Australians.  The two-thousand Viet Cong are depicted as an angry, faceless horde decked out in pith helmets. A momentary glimpse of two female VC guerrillas as they rescue one of their wounded is about as humane as the enemy is shown.

Apart from this all too brief instant, the Viet Cong are shown stampeding suicidally into battle despite the constant Australian artillery barrages that blast the jungle to smithereens and send ill-fated VC somersaulting like acrobats into the trees. Tracer rounds streak through the foliage like deadly lasers beams. “Danger Close” thrives on white-knuckled tension as officers repeatedly disobey orders without impunity.  Occasionally, Major Smith and Private Large run into each other.

They relent and become friends despite their vast differences in rank.  Eventually, Large invites Smith to attend his wedding scheduled after he leaves Vietnam.  However, Smith must have a friend accompany him to prove that he is human.

Meantime, Stenders depicts just about every way that a soldier can catch a bullet.  The violence isn’t particularly repellent, but death strikes without warning suddenly.  One of the four reckless lieutenants who refused to a poker game is shot dead in the field. Very probably, he never knew he had taken an AK-47 round through his face.

The fascinating thing about “Danger Close” is the way General Jackson allows his subordinate officers to take charge of different phrases of the battle.  For example, when one of Smith’s platoons exhausts their ammo, the chopper captain who freights the ammunition into battle ignores the warnings from his horrified colleagues.

Instead, while the artillery batteries lapse into silence, he flies off in a Huey with ammo. As enemy gunfire stitches the fuselage, the choppers rampage toward Delta Company.  Faced without any bullets, Smith’s men reverse their rifles to wield them as if they were medieval clubs.

As they prepare for the inevitable showdown, the choppers hover noisily above them.  Since they cannot land, the harried captain orders his pilots to lurch their ships sideways. Dozens of ammo crates plummet earthward like debris.

Desperate Aussie soldiers scramble frantically for cover as those ammo boxes smash down into the jungle terrain around them.

Unless you’ve seen Travis Fimmel in the “Vikings,” you probably won’t recognize anybody else in the Australian cast. Although Hollywood has produced more than its share of Vietnam War movies, “Danger Close” qualifies as only the second about Aussies in Vietnam, with “The Odd Angry Shot” (1979) as the first.

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