<i> Times Film Critic</i>

Of all the classic categories of movies, the misfits who must somehow be shaped into a fighting unit is one of the most durable. It’s succeeded in everything from “The Dirty Dozen” to “Stripes.” “Heartbreak Ridge” (citywide) reworks the formula again, and the reward is a vintage Clint Eastwood performance--in a film so uninvolving that you barely wake up for the big battle finale.

His voice turned down to a purring rumble so low that only seismographs could catch it, his neck and forehead scarred from a lifetime in the thick of Marine Corps combat, Eastwood, the film’s director-producer, plays a “gunny,” Marine gunnery Sgt. Tom Highway, on his last tour of duty before mandatory retirement.

Predictably, he’s at odds with his major (Everett McGill), just over from Supply and Logistics, who has a low opinion of things done with initiative instead of requisitions. The veteran Highway is at odds with the “new” Marine Corps, whose recruits eat Cocoa Puffs from the box instead of chewing nails and belching fire. Highway is even, it seems, at odds with life itself.

In the script credited to James Carabatsos, “Heartbreak Ridge’s” only new character wrinkle is Highway’s attempt to fathom ‘80s women by reading the “relationship” bits of Harper’s Bazaar and Cosmopolitan (a heroism of its own). He’s still naive about the gender, even after the breakup of his marriage to Aggie (Marsha Mason). Now a cocktail waitress, with long hours and sore feet, she’s still bitter that she waited out the Korean and Vietnam wars for this man, while he won the Medal of Honor and didn’t write. (Her beef, although heartfelt, makes her sound simple. Wasn’t she a career military man’s wife? Did she expect FTD remembrances from Da Nang?)

The movie’s first quarter of an hour has us pleasantly expectant. We get a jail cell intro to Highway’s brawling style and his magnificently inventive obscenities (salty enough to pickle a whole platoon and give the faint-hearted pause), and a meeting between Highway and a guitar-playing, amiable blowhard, Stitch (Mario Van Peebles), the self-styled “Ayatollah of Rock and Rollah,” who stiffs him for a check. Will Van Peebles turn up in Highway’s platoon? Just as surely as God made little green recruits for movies such as this one.


From here on the action seems set on automatic drone: Camaraderie with his lifelong buddy, Master Sgt. Choozoo (the fine Arlen Dean Snyder). Drills, maneuvers, tongue-lashings, insubordination--nothing we haven’t seen before with more impact and more rounded characters. Of the men of his platoon, only Van Peebles stands out, with a facile, flashy, unshaded burst of energy. The rest are sketched in so thin a wash as to not emerge at all, and there are moments, in scenes of barracks hilarity, when the photography is so dark that you can’t even see them.

A real military encounter was needed to test this whipped-together platoon, and since Beirut hardly seemed to lead to the sort of finale the film makers needed, Grenada was the answer. It’s a long way from “The Sands of Iwo Jima,” but it serves. There is more of Tom Highway’s canny insubordination, and vindication--and it seems as thinly stitched up as the rest of the story.

None of this seems to bother Eastwood, however, who does it all--the physicality, the obscenities, the puzzlement in love and mastery in war--better and more economically than almost any screen icon around, except possibly Toshiro Mifune. But he could do it even better with richer, more complex material.

One alarmed question: There’s no reason to doubt the movie’s technical accuracy, so one assumes that Marines today really do wear floppy, camouflaged fatigue hats into combat. Whatever happened to helmets?

‘HEARTBREAK RIDGE’ A Warner Bros. release of a Malpaso production in association with Jay Weston Productions. Executive producer Fritz Manes. Producer, director Clint Eastwood. Screenplay James Carabatsos. Camera Jack N. Green. Editor Joel Cox. Music Lennie Niehaus. Production design Edward Carfagno, set decoration Robert Benton. Costumes Glenn Wright. Sound mixer William Nelson. With Clint Eastwood, Marsha Mason, Everett McGill, Moses Gunn, Eileen Heckart, Bo Svenson, Boyd Gaines, Mario Van Peebles, Arlen Dean Snyder, Vincent Irizarry, Ramon Franco, Tom Villard, Mike Gomez, Rodney Hill, Peter Koch.

Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

MPAA-rated: R (persons under 17 must be accompanied by parent or adult guardian).