"Off Limits" (citywide) tries to freshen up the formula cop thriller by setting it in Saigon, 1968, and making the cops members of the U.S. Army's Criminal Investigations Detachment (CID). What this really means is drawing upon the Vietnam War merely to provide an atmosphere of violence, chaos and corruption for a story that could just as easily have been told in any big city anywhere, any time.
The result is slick, standard issue ultra-violent, fast-moving, hard-action exploitation fare enlivened by exotic locales and graced by anti-war pieties that smack of hypocrisy and hindsight.
Having chosen to set a serial murder case in a war zone, writer-director Christopher Crowe and his co-writer Jack Thibeau fail to explore the inherent irony of the situation. (Chaplin made the most of a somewhat similar predicament in "Monsieur Verdoux.") Despite his impersonal approach, Crowe does manage some dark humor in sending out his diligent cops to the battlefields of Khe Sanh and up in a helicopter with a crazed American colonel (Scott Glenn, in a welcome zany cameo appearance).
McGriff (Willem Dafoe) and Perkins (Gregory Hines) are the cops, a pair of essentially sane and decent types for all their macho super-heroics. They buck high-level interference in their pursuit of a savage unknown killer who preys upon Vietnamese prostitutes whose children have been fathered by American servicemen.
Working under a tough master sergeant, (Fred Ward), McGriff and Perkins clash repeatedly with a local police official (Kay Tong Lim), producing encounters with ugly racist overtones. However, they do gain the confidence of a pretty French nun, Sister Nicole (Amanda Pays), whose good works involve constant contact with prostitutes and their children. Sure enough, mutual attraction sparks between McGriff and Sister Nicole, but right away you know he's not the kind of guy to try to sway Nicole from taking her final vows. (The film makers also don't make anything of the fact that all the women in the picture are either madonnas or prostitutes.)
As McGriff, Dafoe has a chance to contrast a ferocious intensity with considerable gentleness, but Perkins is mainly a more serious version of the cop Hines played in "Running Scared." The strongest element in "Off Limits" is the pungent noir atmosphere created in Thailand locations by resourceful production designer Dennis Washington and cinematographer David Gribble. If you put your mind to it, it's not difficult to guess who the serial killer is, but "Off Limits" (MPAA-rated R for much violence and strong language) is not the kind of picture designed to induce--or withstand--much thought.
A 20th Century Fox presentation produced in association with American Entertainment Partners L.P. Producer Alan Barnette. Director Christopher Crowe. Screenplay Crowe, Jack Thibeau. Camera David Gribble. Music James Newton Howard. Production designer Dennis Washington. Associate producer Michael S. Glick. Second-unit directors Gregg Champion, Richard Ziker. Second-unit camera John Connor. Film editor Douglas Ibold. With Willem Dafoe, Gregory Hines, Fred Ward, Amanda Pays, Kay Tong Lim, Scott Glenn, David Alan Grier, Keith David, Raymond O'Connor, Richard Brooks, Thuy Ann Luu, Richard Lee Reed.
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.
MPAA-rated: R (under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian).