Stone examines Vietnam's detritus with another blunt instrument

December 24, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Oliver Stone is less a director than a bare-knuckles brawler. His films come on like blunt traumas. He turns the audience into a heavy bag, gets in close and hammers away. His attitude toward the people in the seats: You can run, but you can't hide.

"Heaven and Earth," therefore, is less to be enjoyed than survived. It is the brutal and brutalizing story of the life and hard times of Le Ly Hayslip, a victim and a survivor of this country's crusade in Southeast Asia, as derived from Hayslip's two books, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places" and "Child of War, Woman of Peace." It is equal parts atrocity, bombast and genius, but it is never one complete thing.

Still obsessed with his own tour of duty in Vietnam, Stone may mean the work as a act of expiation. For an infantryman in the year of our war 1967, those tiny people in their tatters and rags in their pitiful little hooches by the roadside were targets of opportunity. Stone pretty much summed up the grunt point of view toward the Vietnamese peasantry in the harrowing massacre sequence in "Platoon."

Now, it's as if he's saying, 25 years later: Ooops.

The film means to evoke the passionate tapestry of rural Vietnamese life, its traditions, its dense lattice of moral obligations and spiritual values, under the encompassing arch of family love. It's a kind of "Fiddler on the Roof" of 'Nam and a refutation of Gen. William Westmoreland's famous bonehead statement that "these Oriental people value life less than we do."

All of this is fine and dandy, but it isn't quite a movie.

In fact, too much of "Heaven and Earth" is hell -- vivid recreations of the atrocities enacted against this young woman for the simple crime of being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong color of skin, although the place was her own country.

Le Ly, played energetically by a pre-med student named Hiep Thi Le, is like a lightning rod for violence. She's raped by the Viet Cong, she's captured and tortured by the South Vietnamese Secret Police, and she's "relocated" by the Americans, which turns her into a city girl, a hustler and, briefly, a prostitute. And then the worst fate of all: She marries a Marine.

Tommy Lee Jones plays Gunnery Sgt. Steve Butler, who rescues Le Ly from the fall of Saigon and takes her to a U.S. of A. of shopping centers, bell bottoms and wife abuse. But Jones isn't playing a character, he's playing a culture. He's Sergeant America. The allegorical structure of the film is so infantile it comes to grate.

Actually, he's playing bits and parts of four men. The Steve Butler role is actually an amalgamation of the four that the authentic Le Ly Hayslip married at one time or other. Thus, Jones can make no sense of him because, both symbolically and authentically, he's all over the place. He's American kindness, he's American cruelty, he's good-hearted, he's evil, he's beautiful masculine power, he's machismo gone savagely awry (Stone's screenplay places him in the CIA's Operation Phoenix, an assassination program that unfortunately took out too many of the innocent with the guilty). He's a sweaty screamer lost in the dark of a nightmare. And ultimately, he's a wife-beater and gun wielder. Jones acts the heck out of the character but it always seems more smoke than fire. We never get to Butler's essence.

By far the two strongest presences in the film are Joan Chen as Le Ly's mother, a tower of strength given sinew and vividness by Chen, and Haing S. Ngor, from "The Killing Fields," as her father, a gentler and more poetic soul.

The movie also seems wildly overproduced. Stone indulges in endless scenes of attacks on villages, exploding land mines, columns of refugees scampering through shellfire and the like, but in the end to little effect. It's all background noise and hubba-hubba, visually splendid but unfelt. No one single sequence is followed from start to finish; rather, all the big stuff, which looks so impressive in trailers and in TV ads, is used primarily as a bridge to get us from one part of the movie to another. But it's a trip we become increasingly unwilling to take.

"Heaven and Earth"

Starring Hiep Thi Le and Tommy Lee Jones

Directed by Oliver Stone

Released by Warner Bros. tomorrow

Rated R

... **

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