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'Apocalypse Redux' still amazing, flawed

By Paul Tatara
CNN Reviewer

(CNN) -- Few films in the past 25 years have been as endlessly analyzed and debated as Francis Ford Coppola's audacious Vietnam War epic, "Apocalypse Now." The general consensus that it's a flawed visionary experience hasn't changed much over the years, so Coppola now brings us "Apocalypse Now Redux," a new version that's been slightly re-edited and includes an additional 45 minutes of never-before-seen footage.

The results are just as decidedly mixed as the original, with moments of astounding technical achievement and dreamlike power rising above poorly focused metaphysical posturing.

The plot of "Apocalypse Now," loosely based on Joseph Conrad's novel "Heart of Darkness," concerns a Special Forces officer named Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen), who must journey upriver in a Navy PBR boat, hoping to eventually find and kill the elusive Col. Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Kurtz's more conventionally brutal superiors view him as having gone insane. Without their approval, Kurtz has recruited an army of renegade soldiers and Montagnard tribesman to do his savage, no-nonsense bidding.

From a structural standpoint, Coppola made a "road movie," although it takes place on a war-torn river. Willard and the patrol boat's crew (Albert Hall, Laurence Fishburne, Frederic Forrest, and Sam Bottoms) pass through increasingly dark, surreal visions of physical and spiritual devastation. Coppola and his technicians (especially cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and sound designer Walter Murch) pushed the very boundaries of cinema, devising a war picture that plays like a slowly escalating acid trip.

Expanded, but still inconsistent

'Apocalypse Now Redux' is an extended director's cut of the Vietnam War classic

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ON THE WEB The changes in 'Apocalypse Now'

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"Apocalypse Now Redux" is certainly different than "Apocalypse Now," but it's not any better.

Some of the new footage expands on Robert Duvall's surfing-obsessed airborne commander, Col. Kilgore, as well as the bizarre after-performance lives of a group of Playboy Playmates who are entertaining the troops on a USO tour.

There's also a previously discarded -- and pretty awful -- sequence that takes place at a lingering French plantation in the Vietnamese jungle. Believe it or not, it concludes with a romantic interlude featuring sappy music that might as well be titled "Love Theme from 'Apocalypse Now.' "

Interestingly, the script's flaws are only amplified by the new additions. Coppola and co-writer John Milius never figured out how to make Willard's inner turmoil drive the story, rather than being the connective tissue between remarkable, though basically unrelated, set pieces. You continually sense the director grasping to hold his ragged vision together, and that isn't remedied by the new footage. The picture continues to work only in fits and starts, regardless of how outlandishly high the plateaus are.

Staggering action -- and comic relief

The classic sequence, of course, is Kilgore's Wagner-accompanied helicopter attack on a Vietnamese village. Even after 22 years, the attack is staggering, one of the most magnificently conceived and executed action sequences in movie history.

Far and away the most enjoyable additions in "Apocalypse Now Redux" center on a practical joke that Willard and his men play on Kilgore after the battle. It plays like outright comic relief, and humanizes Sheen's distant character. Duvall (who deserved, but didn't get, an Oscar for his performance) also delivers some new surfing-related dialogue, and one strange instance emphasizes Kilgore's mad mood swings between butchery and tenderness.

During the journey, psychological parallels are drawn between Willard and his intended victim, Col. Kurtz. Unfortunately, the two men's actual confrontation is a murky mess of half-baked philosophizing, with Brando and Dennis Hopper (as a stoned American photojournalist) trying desperately to ad-lib a coherent ending to Coppola's movie. Given the frequent brilliance of what precedes their attempt, they fail miserably. A new scene with Brando doesn't hurt and doesn't help.

Apparently, we'll have to be forever content with an "Apocalypse Now" that isn't even close to perfect. But the movie still has the power to floor you with its stunning sounds and imagery.

"Apocalypse Now Redux" contains hallucinogenic violence, nudity, sex, and tons of profanity. Rated R. Even at a sometimes-grueling 196 minutes, you should absolutely see this in a theater. The movie has been gradually opening around the country; it goes into wider release August 17.

• Coppola revisits 'Apocalypse'
February 26, 2001

• 'Apocalypse Now Redux' - official site

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