Dogfight Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: More Than It Seems

Lili Taylor and River Phoenix shine bright in Dogfight (1991) directed by Nancy Savoca and penned by Bob Comfort. Set the night before the JFK assassination, this bittersweet love story follows a cocky, young marine ready to head to Southeast Asia to fight as he spends a night with a thoughtful girl who captures his hidden, sensitive heart. 

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Dogfight opens in 1967 as we see a young soldier limp off a bus for a meal. We’re quickly taken back to November 21, 1963. Corporal Eddie Birdlace (Phoenix) and his three Marine pals (Richard Panebianco, Anthony Clark, Mitchell Whitfield), known as the four B’s due to their last names, are heading for Vietnam in the morning and have one last night to live it up in San Francisco. They start the night by setting up what’s called a “dogfight” with fellow “jarheads.” The point of this dogfight is for the participants to select an unattractive woman and bring her to the designated bar for a dance and judgment. The winning soldier with the “ugliest” date wins prize money. As he runs short on time and options, Birdlace ducks out of the rain and into a small diner where he meets a shy, young, not unattractive, aspiring folk singer named Rose (Taylor). Birdlace woos Rose by pretending he’s into folk music, and Rose eventually concedes to accompany him to the “dress up” party he’s invited her to. 

To his credit, Birdlace tries halfheartedly to sway Rose from going into the bar for the party but she insists. Once inside, he seems torn and annoyed with himself, so he slams down drinks along with his buddies. Birdlace also attempts to keep Rose from dancing as that is the final judgment of the dogfight. Birdlace does not win and Rose only finds out the truth behind the dance after she’s been sick in the bathroom from too many drinks. It turns out that the winning girl (E. G. Daily, in horrible makeup and no front teeth) was hired by one of the four B’s as a ringer and as they argue in the bathroom, Rose hears everything. Rose then confronts Birdlace and punches him in the eye before storming off for home. Feeling disgusted with himself over his treatment of Rose, Birdlace goes to Rose’s apartment where she lives with her mother above the diner they own. After calming her large dog, Birdlace puts a note on her window apologizing and asking her to come down and talk. Rose only agrees to dinner with Birdlace if he remains honest with her and that if this is part of his dogfight, she’ll “kill him.” 

What follows and absorbs the remaining two-thirds of the movie is a bittersweet story of two people with different perspectives on life getting to know one another as they wander San Francisco, from a fancy restaurant to a small folk music club and finally an arcade to play Whack-a-mole.  As Birdlace and Rose get to know each other, the other B’s have a wild night on the town; they fight some sailors (one of which is Brendon Fraser in his screen debut) and get matching bee tattoos before receiving blow jobs from a “pro” as they watch a skin flick. After spending the night with Rose in her room, the two part ways and Birdlace reunites with his pals before they head overseas. There’s a short scene in Vietnam where the boy’s fates are hinted at before we’re brought back to 1967 with Birdlace getting off a bus in search of Rose. 

Dogfight is funny and warm-hearted as it delivers its weighty analysis on the themes of dated gender roles and social norms. Nancy Savoca’s directing is simple and wonderful. She relies on lighting and settings to enhance the outstanding performances by Lili Taylor and River Phoenix. She does a great job in presenting to us what we need to see while allowing us to hear certain things that happen just out of the frame. Taylor brings a light and a passion to Rose who acts as a catalyst for Birdlace to examine who he is under the macho exterior and why he acts like he does. Taylor plays Rose with a wonder and naivety that is offset by her strong passion and courage to stand her ground where her feelings and heart are concerned. Phoenix brings a depth and sincerity to Birdlace that another actor may not have been able to achieve as he plays a character very much unlike his true self. 

There are many scenes that highlight who these two characters are but one stands out the most is when as we find the couple at a fancy restaurant where Birdlace has not ordered food because he can’t afford more than one dish. Upon learning this, Rose instantly splits her food, causing him to pause as he realizes he likes Rose more and more. This scene reflects heavily upon the ending as Birdlace seeks the comfort and understanding that Rose gave him that night. Through 93 minutes, we see Rose go from shy, naive, girl to strong, nurturing cafe owner. We follow along as Birdlace charges off to war a headstrong young buck only to return a broken, stoic old man who brushes off insults and slights he wouldn’t have before.  There’s a great scene where a hippie says to him the cliche line, “how many babies did you kill?” and Birdlace walks past without paying any attention whereas four years ago he would have started a fight then and there. 

Special features for the Criterion Blu-ray release include an audio commentary track with Savoca and producer Ricahrd Guay, a new 2024 interview with Savoca and Taylor by filmmaker Mary Harron, and a Zoom interview with many other members of the crew. The interview with Savoca and Taylor is fascinating (as is the audio track) where we learn how they, along with Phoenix, fleshed out and developed Bob Comfort’s script, putting the focus more on Rose and Birdlace than Birdlace and his buddies. We also learn that Phoenix came attached with the movie and had to approve of Savoca as director before filming began. Fortunately, he liked her ideas and how she saw the movie playing out. Warner Brothers had envisioned more of a Porky’s affair where Savoca and her principal actors took it to nearly a completely different place, concentrating more on human connection and what lies underneath it all. Savoca speaks on how she managed to keep much of Comfort’s take on loyalty, brotherhood, and bonds forged between close friends intact as we watch the four B’s cover each other’s backs including Birdlace even though he isn’t with them throughout the whole night. Savoca also addresses her song selection and how she balanced folk music and that era’s doo-wop and rock and roll as she toggles between Rose’s world and that of the four B’s.

Dogfight remains a timeless study in human nature, societal roles, and how we hide who we really are to the outside world until a Rose comes along to help us see through our own bullshit. There’s a great scene with Panebianco and Phoenix where they briefly discuss the night: what they saw and how they became such B.S-spouting idiots. Panebianco’s response sums up their existence well and helps to highlight why they’re so enthusiastic to be on a bus headed off to a “little country” to be military advisers. I watched this one on cable many years ago as a teen but didn’t recall much about it. Perhaps that’s because it resonates with me so much more now as an adult knowing the impact that one person and one night can have on a lifetime. 

Joe Garcia III

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