Winner of 5 Academy Awards, The Deer Hunter gets a new Blu-ray release thanks to Universal Studios celebration of 100 years of film. This movie appears on many people's lists of the 100 best films of all time, and over the years I've heard so many great things about it, but it suffers from the most basic flaw a movie can have: being old. 34 years after its original debut on the big screen, it really is no surprise that it doesn't age well.
The film begins in Clairton, Pennsylvania, a small working class town, and we are introduced to a group of steel workers, their friends, family, and community. Steven (John Savage) is getting married, and he, Michael (Robert De Niro) and Nick (Christopher Walken) are leaving for military services on Monday. The movie spends a long time at the wedding and reception. A really long time. It's the first place where I find myself noticing that the pacing of older films is drastically different from modern films. This would have been ten minues, maybe fifteen, in a movie today, but it goes on, seemingly, forever in The Deer Hunter. And then Michael strips naked and runs through town. It doesn't make much sense. But we do get one important scene, where Nick makes Michael promise that no matter what happens Michael won't leave him over there in Vietnam, even if he's dead, Michael will bring him home.
At this point, a modern film would probably jump to the war, but this movie decides to follow the guys (minus the groom) on their last weekend hunting trip. I'm pretty sure these scenes are supposed to mean something, that there is supposed to be some subtle message being imparted, and in 1978 it might have, but in 2012 is just feels clunky and odd and like it should have been cut out.
Now we get to the war. A village is being blown up and a North Vietnamese soldier is killing survivors. We see Michael laying down among some other wounded. He's alive and kills the soldier. Then more US troops show up, Nick and Steven are with them and they are surprised to see Michael. You see, despite the movie not telling us anything, the three guys joined up together, but Michael went into the Special Forces while his buddies stayed in the Infantry. Anyway, the reunion is short because they start taking mortar fire and we see a line of enemies coming over the ridge. We are spared the battle (sigh) and we cut to a North Vietnamese prison camp.
Prisoners are being forced to play Russian Roulette while soldiers place bets. Eventually Michael and Steven are set to play against each other. Steven shoots himself in the head, but the gun was angled such that he only took a grazing hit, and he's dragged off into a pit to die. Michael convinces Nick that they can escape, but Michael needs more bullets in the gun. When the two of them face off, Michael makes Nick demand that three bullets be put in the gun. He survives his turn and when Michael takes his, he uses the pistol to kill three guards and both men tackle soldiers for better weapons. They kill all the soldiers and get Steven out of the pit.
The three friends then take to the river, floating on driftwood. They eventually grab on to a rope bridge over the river after being spotted by American helicopters. Nick gets rescued while Michael and Steven fall back into the river. Steven breaks his legs and Michael carries him back to friendly territory on foot.
Nick is in a hospital with partial amnesia. He's let out... I didn't get that either... and is wandering the streets. He finds an illegal Russian Roulette gambling house and signs up to play. Michael is inside, he sees Nick but Nick doesn't see him. Nick flips out and take a gun from one of the players and puts it to his own head. The chamber is empty when he pulls the trigger and a riot breaks out. Michael tries to get to Nick but Nick drives off with one of the game runners.
Michael returns home. He shacks up with Nick's girl (Meryl Streep). He finds out that Steven is alive, but living at the VA Hospital having lost both of his legs. Someone has been sending Steven money from Saigon, and Michael believes it is Nick. So Michael goes back to Vietnam to find Nick, and he does, in a Russian Roulette gambling ring. He pays a lot of money to challenge "the American". Nick and Michael sit across from each other just as they did back when they were prisoners but Nick doesn't recognize Michael. Michael talks about various things trying to get Nick to remember, and he finally does, just before pulling the trigger one last time. Nick dies and Michael takes his body home.
The movie is just over three hours long, which is probably anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half too long. Much like the wedding and reception, many scenes are unnecessarily long and ponderous. Entire sections could be excised without affecting the central plot. Part of this can probably be blames on the fact that the screenplay began as a spec called "The Man Who Came To Play" about Russian Roulette in Las Vegas that was shifted to Vietnam and then director Michael Cimino wanted to flesh out the characters and remove the roulette but was begged to keep it in. So there are really two movie here, one about Russian Roulette set against a Vietnam backdrop and another about people from a small town who go to war and come back changed. Unfortunately, having these two stories fighting for center stage doesn't hold up well, and the film by modern standards just drags. As filmed, this 5 Oscar winner probably couldn't even get nominated today.
This 100th anniversary of Universal Studios edition of The Deer Hunter includes a full commentary track by Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and Film Journalist Bob Fisher, which I didn't find very interesting - probably because they were talking about making a film I didn't really enjoy. There are also a few deleted an extended scenes, all of which were cut or trimmed rightfully and don't add to the experience of the movie.
All in all, if you are a fan of the film, having seen it long before it became "old" then you should probably add this to your collection. The presentation is fantastic, the picture crisp and the sound fabulously mastered, or re-mastered, or whatever they call it. If you haven't seen the movie, you may want to skip it. As a fan of filmmaking in general, I can appreciate what The Deer Hunter accomplished in its day, but after 34 years it is clearly a relic of the past.