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Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #210: Platoon

The phrase “like father like son” applies really well to Martin and Charlie Sheen. In 1979 Martin Sheen starred in Apocalypse Now, an intense Vietnam War movie that puts its actors through hell. Not to be outdone in 1986 Charlie Sheen was put through an actual boot camp training for Oliver Stone’s Platoon. Sadly nowadays the younger Sheen is better known for starring in sitcoms and behaving wildly offscreen, but Platoon shows there is a great actor buried beneath the tabloid fodder.

Platoon can definitely be described as a guy film in the sense that it features a mostly all-male cast that spends most of its time doing very violent things. A romantic comedy this is not. So obviously I watched it when I was in my late teens with my brother. I am pretty sure we had already seen Apocalypse Now, but even so there are scenes of violence in Platoon that will rattle your cage the first time around. Oliver Stone based the film on his own experiences in Vietnam to give an accurate portrayal of the war. I don’t know about accurate, but if he was aiming for visceral then mission accomplished.

Sheen stars as Chris Taylor, a college dropout who in 1967 volunteered for combat duty in Vietnam. As the movie progresses both Taylor and the audience begin to wonder, what kind of a demented idea was it to volunteer to go to Vietnam? Taylor and the rest of his platoon are not doing their tour in some secure military base surrounded by bullet-proof vehicles. They are in the hot and humid jungle where they can get killed any day by enemy fire, enemy traps, and sometimes even friendly fire. I always found that a weird. Are bullets fired in your direction ever “friendly?”

Stone shows the troops as morally falling apart doing drugs whenever they can and contemplating injuring themselves to be sent home. As for regulations, those begin to loosen up more and more every time the platoon gets attacked. It all comes down to Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger) and Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe). Elias is well liked by the soldiers and Taylor sees him as a mentor. Barnes on the other hand is a border line war criminal who has no problem with putting a gun to the head of a Vietnamese girl when he suspects her dad may or may not have information about the enemy.

In a more old-fashioned Hollywood movie the bad guy would get what’s coming to him and the good guy would be rewarded for doing the right thing. Not so in Platoon. It shows war as complete and utter chaos, especially during the final battle in the third act when all hell breaks loose. The level of violence is unrelenting, with the enemy pummelling the platoon from every direction. War is hell, and it’s even worse when hell comes at night with grenade launchers.

The movie is also notable for being one of the first movies for many successful future successful actors. In addition to Sheen’s Taylor, the platoon is also made up of John C. McGinley, Tony Todd, Forest Whitaker, Keith David, and even a young Johnny Depp. That’s an impressive roster and sadly most of these actors would go on to make much better movies than Platoon’s star.

Sheen’s questionable career aside, Platoon definitely ranks as one of the top war movies ever made, very close to Apocalypse Now. The fact the two films share similar themes and stars led to a pretty good gag in Hot Shot: Part Deux.


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