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‘Armadillo’ / ‘Cockfighter’

War strikes fear in the heart of man (and chicken)

by Giovanni Fazio

If you go to see “Armadillo”, you will be in a cinema watching a war movie. A documentary, yes, but one that’s safely on the screen as you sit back and watch Danish soldiers deployed in Afghanistan. You will watch those same soldiers try to relieve the boredom of life on a forward operating base by playing first-person shooter games on their laptops. That scene will cut to soldiers watching grainy security-cam images of Afghan men on their perimeter, deciding rather casually whether or not to call down fire on them. Then the commanders watching drone imagery of a faraway firefight.

Screens, screens, screens.

Then you will watch as a patrol gets ambushed, a soldier gets hit, and he turns to the camera with a look of pure fear and disbelief: War has moved off the screen and into his reality, and the look on his face is the defining moment of “Armadillo,” a bold attempt to bring home the reality of war to an overly mediated generation.

Director Janus Metz spent six months in 2009 with a platoon of Danish troops deployed in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province as part of the NATO role in “bringing peace to Afghanistan.” Sarcasm aside, nothing can disguise the fact that however much U.S. troops might feel a sense of purpose regarding their deployment in Afghanistan (see the similar American doc “Restrepo”), the European war fighters — as they make quite clear in the film — are in it for the paycheck and/or the sheer thrill of combat.

Watching “Armadillo” is like how I’d imagine a bad acid flashback to Vietnam, with the footslogging through muddy fields, the ambushes by a mostly unseen enemy, the soldiers who can’t tell the civilians from the guerrillas (“The only difference is the Taliban have weapons”), the locals who get caught in the crossfire, and the inescapable feeling that the only progress being made is days marked off on a calendar until the NATO troops can go home with their war stories. Patrols leave the base with a cordon of armored personnel carriers, surely visible to insurgents miles away, and then wonder why they can’t find the enemy. Airstrikes are called in on a suspected enemy position, yet the only casualty is a young girl. Locals point out the obvious when refusing to cooperate with coalition troops: “You come here with your guns, then leave.” The senselessness is palpable.

“Armadillo” captures the numbing routine of patrols, lifting weights, cleaning weapons, debriefings and watching Internet porn, only infrequently interrupted by brief episodes of life-threatening violence. Director Metz takes a largely neutral view, recording the soldiers and their opinions truthfully and without editorializing, while dodging bullets in the field to capture 100 percent of the soldiers’ experience. Controversy did erupt, nevertheless, due the film’s depiction of the Danes’ execution of Taliban wounded. They say war is hell — but it sure beats boredom, it seems.

Director Monte Hellman is the guy who’s known for making one cult classic in the 1970s — the Zen road-race movie “Two Lane Blacktop” (see my review of last January’s re-release) and then disappearing. Actually, he made two movies in the ’70s, but “Cockfighter,” Hellman’s followup to “Two Lane Blacktop,” is barely remembered, probably because it’s not nearly as cool. This Roger Corman-produced quickie from 1974 was Hellman’s attempt to wed his interest in feckless, stoic masculinity and underground grifter subcultures into a product that would appeal to mainstream audiences, and like most attempts by artists to broker a truce with the mainstream, it flopped.

“Cockfighter” opens with Warren Oates driving down a country road with Laurie Bird in the passenger seat, and it almost feels like this is picking up where “Two Lane” left off. But where Oates’ character in that film was a man who never shut up, regaling every stranger with another bunkum story, the guy he plays here, Frank Mansfield, is a man whose past braggadocio cost him dearly, so he has gone mute as a result. His vow of silence is maintained even when he takes his steel-taloned birds into the ring for their “hacks,” or loses his trailer home and girlfriend in a misplaced bet with his nemesis, Burke (Harry Dean Stanton).

The film veers between documentary-styled naturalism — look at the dead serious faces on the crowds of people betting on the cockfights — and some pretty stilted dialogue, usually in the mouth of Patricia Pearcy, playing Frank’s hometown girl with such lines as, “I think that bird had more of a heart than you’ll ever have!”

Still, there are things to enjoy here, not least of which is viewing some early American work by Nestor Almendros, the legendary cinematographer who would go on to pick up an Oscar for his work on Terence Malick’s “Days of Heaven” (though in a typical Corman move, the producer cut corners and saddles Almendros with an inept crew just out of film school).

Hellman is again good at capturing the details of competitive obsession, while Oates — who would also star in Sam Peckinpah’s “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” that same year — is a joy to watch, the great also-ran star of the decade.