He’s understandably defensive. It’s not as good, certainly, as Oliver Stone’s Platoon, which the cover art begs you to recall, or Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, but it’s a decent stab at a Vietnam-era production. It’s at least a movie, something not easily said about the rest of his “uwe-re,” mostly video-game adaptations that failed to reach the first level of play when he brought them to the screen: House of the Dead (2003), Alone in the Dark (2005), Bloodrayne (2006), In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (2008), and so on. For him, moviemaking seems less an art than a severe case of OCD — he was catching his breath on location in Croatia when I caught up with him for a brief chat. He throws an awful lot of red meat to the legion of Boll haters, and is at zero on the celebrity Tomatometer; if his movies were inbound to the hospital, they’d be pronounced brain dead and taken off life support immediately upon arrival.
But Boll battles back. The 44-year-old German boxed for 14 years, and has done what no other filmmaker has done and taken his opponents into the ring. He beat five critics to a pulp in what were dubbed the “Raging Boll” matches in 2006, and last year threw down the gauntlet to Michael Bay, calling him and Hostel director Eli Roth “fucking retards.” Boll vs. Bay is something critics would kill to see, particularly after the vomitous reception to the new Transformers movie.
Tunnel Rats has got to be 1,000 times better than Bay’s latest. (I’m unwilling to find out.) By going straight to video, however, it’s unlikely to make it too far out of the tunnel. The huge grosses racked up by most of Bay’s pictures don’t insulate him from his critics, but they do allow him to buy solid-gold earmuffs and block out the noise. Boll produces his films via German tax shelter laws and claims they don’t lose money. In the U.S., at least, they don’t make money, either, and have now slipped below the theatrical release radar. And, while Boll’s movies wither and die on the Tomatometer, the second Transformers somehow meets with 20 percent approval.
In February, Boll received a Worst Career Achievement award at the Razzies, for the triple threat of In the Name of the King, Postal, and Tunnel Rats. I can’t argue with King, a $60 million disaster, with Ray Liotta acting strangely gangsta in a medieval setting, that ’70s guy Burt Reynolds acting not at all medieval, and Jason Statham acting not at all. But in reviewing Postal last year I called it, with love, a “Boll movement”: its satire is scattershot, but some of its bits, including the director’s own self-parody, are genuinely funny. Tunnel Rats (the title was changed on the box from 1968 Tunnel Rats, presumably so no one would assume it was about 1,968 tunnel rats) is another advance.
The tunnel rats are a special U.S. combat unit sent into the Cu Chi tunnels to ferret out Vietcong. The booby-trapped network of tunnels was the base of operations for the 1968 Tet Offensive, “and the reason America lost the Vietnam War. They weren’t prepared for that kind of fighting,” Boll says. As the tunnels are now open to tourists he wanted to shoot there, but the Vietnamese government resisted, so he set up shop in South Africa, filming the outdoor sequences “right where Leonardo DiCaprio was killed in Blood Diamond” and the tunnels in a maze of sets built in a disused Cape Town theater. Other than Michael ParÃ© (with several credits together, the actor is the Denzel Washington to Boll’s Tony Scott), the cast is all newcomers.
Stone brought his Vietnam experience to bear on Platoon. Lacking that, Boll had a novel idea: Cast actors (including Vietnamese performers) whose family had some history of the war, and allow them to improvise off his script treatment. “It turned out to be a very revealing process,” he says. “The one guy who says that his dream after Vietnam is to open a hamburger chain … well, his grandfather actually did that, not a chain but a popular diner. That background they brought in made the characters more credible.”
As this film was frugally produced, there was another factor at work. “Stars are so expensive, there isn’t much rehearsal time. Sending Jason Statham into boot camp will cost you several hundred thousand dollars. All these guys did it for nothing, for the learning experience.”
The likes of Statham and Reynolds would not have put up with the extreme working conditions. “It was 113 degrees outside, and 104 degrees inside the studio. The air just stood still. The actors had to get their uniforms on and go into the tunnels, which were made from fiber plastic Styrofoam, then filled in with real dirt. They were like ovens.”
The fetid atmosphere adds to the verisimilitude. Boll can’t resist a few exploitation moments, like a U.S. soldier gorily killed with a bamboo spear through the neck as he emerges from a tunnel, and, yes, a downloadable game is being marketed. With ParÃ© (whose career peaked in 1984) in charge, you can’t help but think back on the rah-rah revisionist Vietnam actioners that were popular back then, pre-Platoon: Uncommon Valor, Missing in Action, Rambo: First Blood Part II. But America doesn’t get to win this time, and the director forgoes heroics. “The actors certainly felt the tension. In one scene, an American soldier kills a Vietcong soldier, and has to hack up his body to get through the tunnel — an incident that really happened. I had the actor cut through the fake body and find his own way around it, which was very demanding and exhausting. Onscreen and off he was in tears.”
Boll is always having problems with corpses. He and his usual cinematographer, Mathias Neumann, swap funny stories in their disc commentary, including an episode where customs stopped them when they were transporting bags of fake body parts cross-border on Bloodrayne. Like him or not, he does know the ins and outs of international production. He’s currently shooting his first biopic, Max Schmeling, in Zagreb, “a great location for us, as it looks exactly like Berlin did in the 40s.”
The fighter’s career is a natural for Boll, given his ups and downs and propensity for combat. I mention that, like Roger Corman, there seem to be two Uwe Bolls, one churning out video-game adaptations for what masses remain to see them, and the other making more aspirational films, including the fact-based prison melodrama Stoic and the torn-from-the-headlines Darfur, both starring the career-rehabbing Edward Furlong. “I don’t have a twin brother,” he laughs. “I have no problem switching between genres, making horror movies and movies that are more personal to me. I just like to tell stories.” With four movies in the can for 2009 release, he vows to keep telling them. Call it the revenge of the fallen.
Tunnel Rats is available at Amazon.
For more movie reviews and essays, visit Between Productions.