The Film: 4/5
The Odd Angry Shot is adapted from a 1975 novel by William Nagle, a former soldier in the Australian Special Air Services who based on the book on his experiences fighting in the Vietnam War. The movie has no concrete plot, but like most modern war movies the story is built out of a series of episodes from the lives of the soldiers who serve as the main characters. Bill (John Jarratt) has just left his home and girlfriend behind to begin a year-long tour in Vietnam as an S.A.S. grunt. He joins a platoon led by seasoned corporal Harry (Graham Kennedy) and including fellow soldiers Rogers (Bryan Brown), Bung (John Hargreaves), and Dawson (Graeme Blundell). The first few weeks of their tour pass by with only card games, practical jokes, and drunken revelry to stave off ennui. One night their camp is hit by a surprise mortar attack that claims several lives, and this "odd angry shot" is the wake-up call these men have been waiting for to get them in the war. From there we follow Harry, Bill, and the others as they go on missions, consume lots of beer, deal with repulsive foot diseases, have a spider versus scorpion fight that erupts into an Aussies-on-Yanks free-for-all donnybrook, and suffer many injuries and losses in battle along the way. The mixture of boredom and inevitable violent death can be too much for most men to handle, but these professional soldiers from the land Down Under are determined to finish their tours and leave the 'Nam behind forever, come Hell or high water. The high water might get them first because in Vietnam "you can set your watch by this fucking rain!"
The American and Vietnamese sides of the war in Vietnam have been explored in great depth in documentaries and feature films since the late 1960's, but until The Odd Angry Shot came along it was hard for those without an extensive knowledge of the war who didn't grow up during that time to believe that Australia sent troops to fight alongside U.S. armed forces. I've seen countless films about Vietnam in the past and though I wouldn't place Angry Shot with or above the true classics of the genre it's just good enough to be placed on a middle tier between them and the B-exploitation flicks that clogged up drive-in and grindhouse screens. It's honest and forthright in the way it presents its soldier characters as realistic people and not war movie archetypes. You can't tell who will survive and who will end going home in a body bag just from their introductory scenes. The brilliant American filmmaker Sam Fuller once said "Surviving is the only glory in war", and few films express that haunted sentiment as well as The Odd Angry Shot. The focus is not on the combat scenes and graphic bloodshed but on the men who fought the war and how they managed to keep from losing their minds from the stress of being stationed in a hostile foreign land where certain death was often a hair's breadth away every second of their lives.
There are no radical revelations in this film. We already know that war is hell, but in the opinion of director Tom Jeffrey (who also penned the screenplay adaptation based on the Nagle book) war may be hell but it can be bearable as long as you have good friends by your side when you're face down in the shit with fire and lead exploding in the air above. Vietnam was a sensitive subject for the international film industry to tackle, with a few exceptions in the exploitation arena (and John Wayne's notorious jingoistic treatment of the war, 1968's The Green Berets). It wasn't until the late 1970's when we saw the likes of Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, and Apocalypse Now defying the odds to become box office hits and awards season darlings that Americans were ready to face the war so many saw beamed into their living room television sets courtesy of the local and national news in the context of cinematic entertainment. The following decade saw the studios co-opting the war to serve as plot fodder for the lunk-headed (but fun) Rambo and Missing in Action franchises that retroactively gave those who blindly supported the war an easy out by repurposing the carpet bombing and mindless mass slaughter that was supposed to stop the global spread of Communism as patriotic revenge fantasies. It wasn't until Oliver Stone came along in 1986 with his Oscar-winning smash Platoon, and Stanley Kubrick followed suit the next year with Full Metal Jacket, that Hollywood's profitable pillaging of the horrific legacy of Vietnam mercifully came to an end. Dignity was restored to those who fought died on both the sides of the Vietnamese and the U.S. and its allies by embracing the harsh realities of the war and forcing moviegoers around the world from all walks of life to finally accept that it was not an honorable fight, even though many who gave their lives in the service of their countries fought with honor.
The Odd Angry Shot isn't a brutally violent tearjerker; the Aussies don't play like that. These men approach the problems they face everyday as combat soldiers the same way they do back home in Oz - with brawn, brains, bravery, and beer by the barrelful. There is violence in this movie and people do die, but director Jeffrey never feels the need to dwell on the bloodshed in order to demonstrate how dangerous and volatile the situation in Vietnam has become. In his eyes that isn't nearly as important as letting the audience in on how the S.A.S. deal with the difficult truth that any one of them could be dead the very next day. This is an honest and poignant story told with surly humor in the vein of Robert Altman's M*A*S*H, Mike Nichols' Catch-22, Sidney J. Furie's The Boys in Company C, and most recently Sam Mendes' under appreciated Jarhead. Soldiers who have seen the horrors of war and lived to talk about them often write about their experiences with searing candor and gallows humor, not with big dramatic monologues and Oscar-worthy moments. The Australian grunts of The Odd Angry Shot do whatever they can to keep their sanity as the dark cloud of death hangs continuously over their heads, even if that means playing immature pranks on unsuspecting vicars and blasting the holy hell out of official army property.
The character of Bill is the closest this movie comes to having a protagonist, but that's only because he's in more scenes that the other characters with the exception of Harry. John Jarratt - forever known to horror fans for his chilling portrayal of outback psychopath Mick Taylor in Wolf Creek - approaches Bill with quiet strength and youthful exuberance, though he never shies from showing his vulnerable side in scenes involving the woman he loves back home. Harry is the most fully-rounded character in the movie thanks to Graham Kennedy's skillful and sympathetic performance as the career soldier who's been in the S.A.S. long enough to know that the only future he and the other men in his squad can look forward back in Australia is one of being sold enough by the politicians who sent them to Vietnam in the first place. Kennedy brings some touching humor and authority to the role that will have no one doubting his leadership qualities. The cast is rounded out with minor but effective turns from John Hargreaves, Graeme Blundell (also the star of Australia's popular sex comedy movie series Alvin Purple), and Bryan Brown as the other integral members of Harry's squad. Brown would be the only actor in the Odd Angry Shot cast to also find success in American film as well. Fans of the original Mad Max will also recognize Tim Burns - a.k.a. the killer punk Johnny the Boy - as a guest at Bill's going away party in the first scene. The music score by composer Michael Carlos (Long Weekend) frequently hits comical and militaristic notes and is perfect accompaniment for a war movie that effectively straddles the line between light-hearted and dead serious.
Synapse's 1.78:1 widescreen transfer of The Odd Angry Shot in 1080p resolution and encoded in MPEG-4 AVC is solid. The brightness of the picture has been greatly improved, grain is kept to a minimum acceptable level, and details have been sharpened to original theatrical exhibition quality. The drab browns and greens of the soldiers' camp and the lush forests of Queensland (subbing for the Vietnam bush) are vivid and pleasing to the eye. Print damage is non-existent. The English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is a perfect compliment to the remastered picture. Music and dialogue sound absolutely clear and volume levels are well balanced, making manual adjustment with your remote control unnecessary. No subtitles are included, which is a shame because it's sometimes hard to make out what the characters are saying in chaotic scenes due to their thick Aussie accents and regional colloquialisms.
Director Jeffrey contributes a new audio commentary with producer Sue Milliken and actor Blundell where they share stories from the development and production of the film and talk about striving for authenticity in their portrayal of the S.A.S. soldiers in Vietnam. A very chummy chat track with little dead air and a lot of fond and funny remembrances, this commentary is definitely worth your time.
Legendary stuntman Buddy Joe Hooker talks about his experiences coordinating the mid-movie brawl between the Australian and American grunts in the new featurette "Stunts Down Under" (7 minutes). After discussing briefly how he got his start in the business Hooker spends the majority of the interview on the subject of working on The Odd Angry Shot. I wish this one had been longer because documentaries about movie stunt work are highly addictive to me. At least what we do get is good enough.
The extras close out with the original theatrical trailer. Synapse has also given this Blu-ray a reversible cover, but trust me when I say that the new art commissioned blows the image on the other side right out of the water.
The Odd Angry Shot is a very Australian take on soldiering in the Vietnam War, which is to say there’s plenty of beer, brawling, and macho humor. But it’s also one of the few war movies that doesn’t feel the need to batter your emotions into submission. This is a funny, often shocking, and oddly touching film given an excellent Blu-ray presentation from the good folks at Synapse. You should definitely give this Blu-ray a shot, and don't forget to bring a few spare clips of ammo and a case of Foster's.