Saigon (1988)


aka Off Limits

USA. 1988.


Director – Christopher Crowe, Screenplay – Christopher Crowe & David Thibeau, Producer – Alan Barnette, Photography – David Gribble, Music – James Newton Howard, Special Effects Supervisor – Joe Digaetano, Production Design – Dennis Washington. Production Company – American Screen Entertainment Partners/20th Century Fox


Willem Dafoe (Buck McGriff), Gregory Hines (Albaby Perkins), Fred Ward (Dix), Amanda Pays (Nicole), Kay Tong Lim (Lime Green), Scott Glenn (Colonel Dexter Armstrong)


Saigon during the Vietnam War. US military policemen Buck McGriff and Albaby Perkins are assigned to investigate the murder of a Vietnamese prostitute, even though their jurisdiction is only meant to be the US military forces. They find an officer’s insignia dropped at the murder scene. As they investigate, they discover that there have been a number of other similar murders of Vietnamese prostitutes. The connections they uncover lead all the way to the top of the US military in Vietnam. However, as they follow the trail, someone in authority starts trying to impede the investigation by eliminating all the witnesses.

Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986), which was loosely based on Stone’s own experiences serving during the Vietnam War, caused a considerable stir when it came out. Stone was successful in peeling back and making people confront the then open wound of the Vietnam War in the American consciousness. In the next few years, there were a number of films that took the Vietnam War as a subject, including Full Metal Jacket (1987), Good Morning Vietnam (1987), Hamburger Hill (1987), Casualties of War (1989) and tv’s Tour of Duty (1987-90) and China Beach (1988-91). Amid these, Saigon/Off Limits is interesting as one effort that uses the Vietnam milieu for something other than tub-beating the Veterans Association cause, even if in all other respects the film is using said wave of Vietnam films to ride on. Indeed, Saigon/Off Limits is the only film of this sub-genre to take the view that the US military presence in Vietnam was justified and that the Vietnamese are little more than peasants. The prevailing spirit of Saigon is fairly much one of gung ho cowboy heroics.

The most fascinating about Saigon is the remarkable ease with which the Vietnam War milieu is transformed into a modern film noir setting. The atmosphere of military occupation, prostitution, a corrupt and conspiratorial hierarchy among the US forces, racial tension, and in the background a Catholic Church that has had to blur its rules to cope with the destitution, makes for something original and compulsive. There is the fascinating sense of a detective story taking place where the detectives are not just chasing the truth but trying to impose sanity and normal rules on a world gone crazy. The downside of this is that it is a case of the setting being far more interesting than the plot, whose twists and turns are never as captivating as the atmosphere the film arrays around it.

Willem Dafoe is never what one might call an audience-friendly actor and comes over as too harsh when required to fill the part of a heroic leading man – something that is just not his forte. Amanda Pays, who puts on a thoroughly unconvincing French accent, fails completely to convince in her role as a nun. The best performances in the film however come in the supporting cast. As the commanding officer, Fred Ward gives his role a dangerous cocky arrogance that makes for a chillingly believable end. Especially good is Scott Glenn, who goes right over the edge in the film’s singularly most startling scene as a colonel discovered with a prostitute in the midst of an S&M scene involving US military uniforms and a pistol, who then abducts Willem Dafoe and Gregory Hines after catching them spying and takes them up in a helicopter and jumps out, saying that whether he will fly or not will be the proof of his innocence.

Saigon/Off Limits was the feature-film directorial debut of Christopher Crowe who has worked as a producer/writer principally in television where he has racked up a number of other genre credits. Crowe’s other films as a director were the tv movie Steel Justice (1992) in which a man gains the ability to bring a giant dinosaur toy to life and the fine psychotherapy thriller Whispers in the Dark (1992). Christopher Crowe has also produced the tv anthology series Darkroom (1981); produced/written Nightmares (1983), a horror anthology tv pilot that ended up being theatrically released; produced the anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1985-9); created the tv series B.L. Stryker (1989-90); written the screenplay for Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans (1992); created the short-lived horror anthology series The Watcher (1995); written the script for the boyfriend stalker film Fear (1996); and created/produced the time travel series Seven Days (1998-2001).

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