'Article 99' can't decide between issue and entertainment

March 13, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Article 99" desperately wants to be "Catch-22" or "M*A*S*H" but it's too short by half and too loud by twice.

Conceived as a searing indictment of the mess in VA hospitals, it ultimately founders on its own unwillingness to be an issue movie. It wants it both ways: to open eyes and to entertain and when it tries to entertain, it closes eyes with the same old movie blarney.

Kiefer Sutherland, in a role so underwritten you hardly notice him, plays an earnest young surgeon who signs up for a residency in a VA hospital merely as a ticket-punching exercise on the way to a prosperous suburban practice. What he finds is bedlam.

The hospital, overloaded and underfunded, overadministered and understaffed, is a battleground where heroic young doctors struggle to provide first-class medicine to those that deserve it, despite the problems. Meanwhile, a prosperous and entrenched administrative class counts not merely beans but bandages, enema tubes and Q-tips, and tries to run the place like a low-overhead mail-order operation. The two sensibilities -- medical and administrative -- clash like the French and English at Waterloo.

For about an hour, the movie is completely believable, particularly as it chronicles VA culture. Ray Liotta, the head of a guerrilla clique of doctors, emerges as a calm, gifted manipulator of the system: He knows just how to stash a patient until the proper clearances can be accumulated so that the treatment necessary to the condition can be given. For example, a man needing a coronary bypass may be "turfed out" -- stored -- in the Alzheimer's Ward until an authorized operation for a hernia can be scheduled, at which time the docs open him from both ends, and take care of the heart as well as the butt.

The four actors of the first team -- Liotta, John T. McGinley, Lea Thompson and Forest Whitaker -- supply most of the movie's vitality, while poor Sutherland always seems a beat or two behind. What a quartet of merry marauders they are! Liotta especially has the cool aplomb of a combat officer and the romantic heart of a crusader. Watching him swerve and schmooze his way through the chaos may be worth the price of admission.

The movie also manages to sketch in a few of the patients caught in this mayhem. Troy Wilson plays a Marine hero -- from Korea -- who trusts the government to take care of his heart problem, and almost dies as a result; Eli Wallach has a nice few minutes as a World War II guy who's outlived his family and has no place else to go; and finally, Keith David plays a legless vet who has mastered the hospital's routines and functions almost as a Greek chorus. (Completely coincidentally, the presence of three actors from "Platoon" -- McGinley, David and Whitaker -- give the movie the suggestion of being a sequel.)

But then the whole thing falls apart in shameless manipulation and absurd improbability. In the first place, the "Article 99" from which the movie takes its title simply doesn't exist but maybe it should: it merely points out that the government isn't obligated to care for ailments not related to government service. Is this so evil? Should every draftee who spent two mild years clerking in an air-conditioned office be guaranteed lifetime medical care? Not every vet was a combat hero in Vietnam.

More irritatingly, in a search for a bang-up ending, screenwriter Ron Cutler takes an actual event -- a hunger strike at a VA hospital -- and inflates it into a full-blown takeover, which director Howard Deutch then further inflates with every melodramatic icon known to man: machine guns and SWAT teams and barking dogs and searchlights, an exaggeration of reality so grotesque it all but kills the movie.

Attempting to illuminate a source of true American shame -- the indifferent care for men who have given legs and faces and testicles for their country -- the filmmakers themselves end up as the shameless ones.

'Article 99'

Starring Kiefer Sutherland and Ray Liotta.

Directed by Howard Deutch.

Released by Twentieth Century Fox.

Rated R.

** 1/2

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