Whether thought of as brilliant, bloated, indulgent or revealing, the restored, re-edited and expanded version of Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 masterpiece "Apocalypse Now" has to be appreciated for its sheer scope -- and the ambition of its director. The tale of one man's psyche-damaging descent into the horror and profound contradictions of modern warfare, adapted by John Milius from Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," is a reminder of the visceral power of an oversized picture constructed the old-school way. The new version, with an additional 47 minutes of footage pushing the running time to three hours and 17 minutes, is a stunner.
"Apocalypse Now Redux" works both as grand spectacle and affecting human drama, easily mocking the similar intentions of Michael Bay's recent loser "Pearl Harbor," a cloying war epic that gives the genre a bad name. Coppola's film is the most impressive, most stirring movie to hit the big screen this year. Sad commentary on the rest? You bet.
Coppola's achievement, perhaps even more thrilling now than upon its original release, was created the analog way, without use of the jumpy editing and digital effects so often employed in contemporary moviemaking (say, Bay's approach). There are few sequences in modern cinematic history as thrilling as the swooping, machine-gunning helicopter assault by crazed air-cavalry commander Kilgore, played by Robert Duvall in a blistering performance. These effects weren't nurtured on a hard drive: Real hardware and massive manpower were employed during the difficult 16-month shoot in the Philippines.
As before, the heart of the film is a mission assigned by a group of Army intelligence men (including a pre-"Star Wars" Harrison Ford) that sends Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen, long before he mellowed out enough to play the President) upriver into Cambodia to kill the rogue and likely insane Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando). The mission takes the form of a spiritual journey, a road trip with meaningful detours. On one of the side trips, Chef (Frederic Forrest) and Lance (Sam Bottoms) have poignant encounters with two "Playboy" Playmates, seen in the original film only during a USO show that gets out of control. Here, we discover the aftermath: The stranded women have been emotionally beaten up by the carnage and are willing to trade sexual favors for enough fuel to return to civilization. The scene is sexy, funny and more than a little sad.
The essential loopiness of Duvall's character is driven home during another newly added sequence: As Willard makes his way, he's chased by helicopters dispatched by Kilgore, an avid surfer obsessed with finding the perfect wave. Willard and his crew had stolen Kilgore's surfboard, and Kilgore wants it back.
Also added is a ghostly sequence at a French colonial plantation, where a family patriarch (Christian Marquand) offers an angry diatribe on the folly of casual conquest. And Dennis Hopper gets more screen time as an offbeat photographer enthralled with Kurtz. It's yet another reminder of the extent to which Coppola got everything right.
Yet one of the film's most vital scenes is still among its most powerful, as Kilgore cranks up the volume on Richard Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" to cheer on his men as they strafe a Vietnamese village. The liberal Coppola and the ultraconservative Milius conspire to do a number on viewers: It's impossible not to feel a sense of exhilaration during the sequence, to feel something like pride in American military might. At the same time, there's no way to avoid the absurdity of the carnage and the so-called cause behind it.