It's difficult to classify the stark nature and tone of 'Rescue Dawn.' As directed by German art-house auteur Werner Herzog, this challenging wartime opus certainly bears little resemblence to one of granddad's old John Wayne war flicks. Indeed, the overall experience is so disturbing, so nauseating, and so upsetting that I was genuinely surprised to find that it's only rated PG-13.
Based on Herzog's own 1997 documentary 'Little Dieter Needs to Fly,' 'Rescue Dawn' tells the true story of Dieter Dengler, a US Navy pilot who was shot down over Laos and captured by the Vietcong at the beginning of the Vietnam War. After suffering torture at the hands of his captors, Dieter (Christian Bale) is ultimately brought to a Laotian camp where he's imprisoned with other POWs including Duane Martin (Steve Zahn), Gene DeBruin (Jeremy Davies), and Pisidhi Indradat (Abhijati Jusakul). As the months wear on, Dieter devises an escape plan and leads the prisoners to freedom, only to discover that the Vietcong were nothing compared to the harsh rainy season and natural dangers of the Laotian jungle.
Herzog's account of Dieter's imprisonment may be unflinching and depressing, but 'Rescue Dawn' remains a thrilling epic of the human spirit. Christian Bale is fascinating as a man who refuses to bend in the face of torture and almost certain death, handling the slow bleeding madness that overcomes the cocky pilot with grace and respect. He allows Dieter to unhinge from scene to scene, but retains the core of the man and delivers a complete and complex performance. As he's done with previous roles, Bale also demonstrates an astonishing physical commitment to his performance, once again losing a tremendous amount of weight for the role, and even allowing himself to be put through torture scenes without the assistance of CG enhancements or quick edits.
Likewise, Steve Zahn is a revelation. Although I've enjoyed his comic timing in other roles, I have to admit that at first I couldn't picture him as a frazzled POW. To my surprise, his comedic roots completely disappear underneath this heart breaking performance. When we meet him, Duane is already a man at the end of his rope, but Zahn's performance is far from one-note. Instead, his Duane slowly digs out of his own stupor to escape a frightening mental prison long before he escapes the physical one. It's an Oscar-worthy supporting performance if I've ever seen one.
Jeremy Davies rounds out a trio of masterful performances. While Herzog's dramatization drastically changes his character, it adds to the drama of the tale and allows Davies to completely sell the horror and the insanity of a prisoner of war. His Gene is the polar opposite of Dieter -- there's a bitterness and rage behind his eyes that reveal a vast hopelessness and disillusionment with his own government. Davies twists his gestures and expressions to portray a man who has seen the abyss and fallen headlong into it.
Herzog does a wonderful job weaving his cast's performances together into a tragic tapestry of pain and suffering, but while I appreciated the director's pacing and the overall tone of the film, I did feel there were some inconsistencies that undermined the story itself. First, a few moments feel a tad exploitive, with Herzog's camera lingering on shots of torture long after the horror of the situation has been effectively established. Second, the climax of the film features a bizarre happy ending that seems to forget the tone of the rest of the film. Finally, although certain character alterations certainly help increase the dramatic tension of the film, I personally would have preferred to see a more true-to-life representation of Gene, in particular.
Still, 'Rescue Dawn' remains an intriguing film that ultimately feels more like an R-rated documentary than a PG-13 war flick. It's definitely one of the more intensely disturbing and difficult films I've seen in quite some time. Fans of action flicks may not take to bleak reality of 'Rescue Dawn,' but the film is a nuanced character study that features three astonishing performances.
The HD DVD Dutch import edition of 'Rescue Dawn' sports a 1080p/VC-1 transfer that is more-or-less identical in quality to the AVC-encoded domestic Blu-ray. The only difference I can find between the two transfers is that the archive footage that opens the film appears to be a bit grainer on the HD DVD than it was on BD. Otherwise, the two encodes rise and fall in stride.
Even though 'Rescue Dawn' begins in an underwhelming steely-toned aircraft carrier, the film comes alive moments before Dieter crashes in Laos. Colors practically erupt on the screen -- a sharp blue sky offsets vibrant jungle greens to create a truly stunning image. The palette retains its uninviting nature, but has the distinct stability of a high definition. Detail is particularly strong, with long shots of the Laotian landscapes peppered with sharp edges and crisp textures. Aside from a few ugly, intentionally soft shots (like a slow pan of the mountainous horizon after Dieter crashes), the high-def image is packed with minor elements that go unnoticed on the standard definition DVD. Black levels are deep, and the frequent nighttime scenes don't suffer from crushing, artifacting, or other source noise. In fact, my only issue with the source is that it exhibits spiking grain fields and slight banding in shots of low lying fog.
All in all, 'Rescue Dawn' snuck up on me. It doesn't have the polish or sheen of a demo disc, but its subtle attributes add up to create an impressive picture. Better still, this HD DVD import offers a substantial visual upgrade over the standard DVD, managing to retain the depressing tone of the film without sacrificing its high definition edge.
Like its domestic release on Blu-ray, the HD Dutch import of 'Rescue Dawn' features a DTS HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 surround track that effectively conveys the dense soundscape of a kinetic jungle. Even the film's most quiet scenes permeate with the low whistle of insects and the hushed swishing of leaves. The impact is subtle, but convincing. Amazing accuracy adds to the illusion as each foliage crack and bullet hiss is placed perfectly in the soundfield.
Even more impressive are the sudden explosions of sound that bombard the listener throughout the film. After a sonically underwhelming opening, the surrounds come alive to deliver a rumbling plane crash that pushes every speaker to its limit. After this initial shock of sound, the design takes full advantage of the LFE channel to make gun shots crack like thunder and helicopters thump overhead. When Zahn and Bale encounter a group of villagers during the last leg of their escape, the whine of the jungle, the thunk of a machete, and a chilling scream of desperation literally turned my stomach. Granted, the scene is disturbing on its own, but the sound design really made this moment sink in and feel all too real.
Unfortunately, the one major problem I had with the Blu-ray DTS-HD track pops up here as well -- dialogue among the POWs is way too quiet at times (especially the whispered mumblings from Jeremy Davies). This effect may add to the tension of the film, but it pulled me out of the film every time I had to backtrack to catch everything. Worse still, the Dutch import doesn't have English subtitles, so I couldn't decipher a few key lines. Still, the DTS HD MA mix on this HD DVD import of 'Rescue Dawn' is an impressive exercise in reality that legitimately sustains the bleak tone of the film.
The one area this HD DVD import doesn't stack up to its domestic Blu-ray counterpart is in the features department. While the Blu-ray edition of 'Rescue Dawn' featured a Herzog commentary, a collection of deleted scenes, a stills gallery, and several exclusive high-def features, the Dutch HD DVD only retains the domestic release's extensive documentary.
Even though the documentary has been fragmented, it still offers fans an intriguing glimpse of Herzog's shoot, as well as a series of interviews with the cast and crew. The behind-the-scenes material explores the film's use of practical effects, the weight fluxuations of the cast, the on-set atmosphere of Herzog's work, and the difficulties presented by the intense jungle shoots. It's all quite thorough. This is definitely one to watch and it helped me appreciate the film even more than I intially did.
'Rescue Dawn' makes for a challenging, often uncomfortable viewing experience, but I personally found it rewarding and recommend others give the film a try. As an HD DVD import, this one's very strong, boasting an excellent video transfer and a convincing DTS HD MA audio track. The only downside is that the domestic Blu-ray's extensive bonus features are MIA on this Dutch release. If you're looking to expand your HD DVD collection, this one is definitely worth checking out. However, if you plan to make the move to Blu-ray this year, save your cash and buy the domestic version when you convert.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.