Thriller
Salvador
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Dir: Oliver Stone
Star: James Woods, James Belushi, Michael Murphy, Elpidia Carrillo
Cert / Year: 18 - R / 1986
Format: DVD R2
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Salvador is a semi-biographical account of photojournalist Richard Boyleís experiences in war-torn El Salvador at the beginning of the eighties.

The background of the story is that the military government running El Salvador sees the rebel opposition and demonstrators against its regime, as communist sympathisers. It is because of the threat of a "communist state" that the Salvadoran government receives regular military aid from the United States. The irony being however, that this government is using repression tactics, such as the infamous death squads, which were not too dissimilar to existing communist states of the time. This forms the basis of the story as Boyle sets out to prove this theory by using his camera.

James Woods plays Richard Boyle the hard drinking and womanising Irish-American photojournalist down on his luck after his wife and son leave him, and a career that is sliding rapidly downhill. He teams up with his disc-jockey drinking buddy Doctor Rock (James Belushi) (Red Heat, K-9) after he bails Boyle out of jail for a string of traffic offences. In search of that exclusive photographic image that will kick start his career, Boyle decides to head to El Salvador to cover the events of the horrific civil war that is taking place there. A conversation in the car between Boyle and Rock as they head into El Salvador and the dark events immediately after it, set the harsh tone perfectly for the rest of the film as we discover that Boyle is a sleazy, carefree scoundrel who lies to get what he wants. More importantly we discover that he is "streetwise" in the ways of this country and has important connections, facts that will save his life on numerous occasions throughout the film.

Boyle meets up with top photographer John Cassady (John Savage) an old friend who works for "Newsweek", with whom he has shared the frontline on many occasions. The film then follows the trials and tribulations of the pair as they search for that exclusive picture. Along the way they encounter the murderous Major Max (Tony Plana) (I swear this is the chap who always play a Latin bad guy in films, youíll know him when you see him!), the American choice for the next President of El Salvador in the upcoming election. However, he is a man who holds life with little regard and would happily kill one of his own as well as the opposition. This is especially apparent for civil rights activists and their more vocal supporters as he organises a "hit" which will eventually bring the country into full scale civil war.

Boyle seems to have a finger in every pie around El Salvador and itís not all in his favour. He is hated by the local military after an unfavourable depiction of them from a previous campaign. The American military advisor canít stand him but still tries to glean useful information out of him and a Colonel who labels him a communist. American TV reporter, Pauline Axelrod also provides some intense rivalry probably because she comes across as just the type of sleazy journalist that Boyle is, only with a more upper class image. However, he does have some friends, most notably love interest Maria (Elpidia Carrillo) (Predator) a Salvadoran woman whom he met from his previous visit to the country. Unlike other major films this love interest, forms a crucial part to the whole film and is handled well by director Oliver Stone. Boyle also has solace in the form of the American catholic lay worker, Catherine Moore (Cynthia Gibb) (for anyone that remembers, she starred in the "Fame" TV show for 3 years!), with whom he has a good platonic understanding, which is good considering Boyleís track record with women.

The other major character is American Ambassador Thomas Kelly # (Michael Murphy) ( Shocker, Batman Returns) who is in the final days of his job due to the election of Ronald Reagan as president of the United States. However, this is the most turbulent time in the whole country and the pressure is growing on him to make the correct decision. The horrific rape of some American citizens doesnít help this and itís subsequent cover up by the Salvadoran government. He pulls the plug on military aid but is then is later advised that the rebels are gaining the advantage over the local military and he must make a decision soon, or the country will fall into utter chaos. The ambassador comes across as a compassionate person unlike his advisors who seem to care more about making their mark in history than the welfare of the local population.

The scenes in a pit, where the death squads dump their victims are not pleasant and you get the feeling that the actors are suffering while filming it as well (especially Woods). The rape scene is quite graphic and very disturbing, especially as this is based upon a real incident. It is only now that we learn through the documentary on the DVD that justice could finally be served on those who covered the incident up in the first place.

The film does have its lighter moments, especially between James Woods and Belushi, who spar of each other like boxers and provide some excellent entertainment. Belushi is superb in what is really a side role to James Woods' manic Boyle character, but he makes the most of it. Apparently, they hated each other on the set and Oliver Stone used it to wind them both up in order to enhance their performance, and it evidently worked. Oliver Stoneís direction and screenplay, which he co-wrote with Boyle is as "in your face" as you can get and may represent some of his finest work. It was filmed on a modest budget and was beset with problems. His relationship with James Woods can be best described as stormy, and he even walked of set near the end of filming saying he wasnít coming back. Woods also very nearly died during filming (see the DVD documentary for more information on this story!). All this and continual run ins with the Mexican authorities meant it was not an easy shoot for Stone. Despite all the problems, the frontline battle scenes are realistic and Stone gives a documentary type look to them.

This film was overshadowed by Stoneís other film, the "Oscar" winning Platoon, which along with Salvador was nominated for best screenplay. Unfortunately neither won, and lost out instead to Woody Allenís Hannah and her Sisters. James Woods however was nominated for "Best Actor" and I can see why, for example in the confession scene, he apparently ad-libbed most of the dialogue and it came out as the most believable dialogue of the whole film. The only fault I can find with the film is that in some parts Stone went a bit too far ie: some scenes with dead bodies even though that is his style, however itís not particularly mine, and some of the dialogue tended to preach rather than be fact based, but thankfully that was only minimal.

Despite all the problems with filming, Salvador is an electrifying and thought provoking film, that explores the moralistic and ethical issues of the politics of war with great understanding. The characters are well defined and become much richer as the film progresses. A great achievement for both director and actors considering the limitations they had with filming.

Rating: 4 out of 5

DVD
Picture 1.85:1 Anamorphic Very good picture
Audio Dolby Digital 5.1 Very good sound quality
Features "Into the Valley of Death" documentary. For me the best extra on the disc as it gives a very informative insight into the making of the film and the real character of Richard Boyle, who is not quite the character Woods played him as in the film.
Audio Commentary by Oliver Stone
25 Minutes of Deleted Scenes
Photo Gallery
Collectable Booklet
Verdict The DVD states it is a "Special Edition" release but donít be fooled itís just a basic DVD release and could have done with more extras. The audio commentary had large gaps without any dialogue, which considering itís from a larger than life individual like Oliver Stone, seemed quite disappointing. Although, when he did speak it was quite informative and interesting.

Rating: 2 out of 5

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